The Nobel Prizes 2023 have honored the work of five researchers who were previously distinguished by the BBVA Foundation with its Frontiers of Knowledge Awards. The judging committee of these prizes —awarded by the BBVA Foundation for the past 15 years— has shown an ability to get ahead of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, thereby making the Frontiers of Knowledge awards a reliable herald of international scientific excellence. On no fewer than 26 occasions, winners of the Frontiers of Knowledge Awards have gone on to win a Nobel Prize a few years or even just months later.
U.S. economist Claudia Goldin, the 2023 Nobel laureate in Economics, is the latest to join a long list of scholars whose contributions were acknowledged by the BBVA Foundation awards ahead of the Nobel Prize. In this same year's event, she was preceded by four other Frontiers laureates: Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, in the category of Medicine, and Anne L'Huillier and Ferenc Krausz, in the Physics category.
The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards recognize and encourage excellence in scientific research and the arts, especially contributions of unique impact for their originality and significance. The name of these awards refers both to research work that broadens the scope of knowledge--advancing the frontier of what is known--and to the convergence and overlapping of different disciplines.
The originators of the Covid-19 vaccine, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, together with Robert Langer, received the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Biology and Biomedicine “for their contributions to messenger RNA (mRNA) therapeutics and delivery technology that enable our own cells to produce proteins for disease protection and treatment,” as remarked the committee in its citation. These same discoveries, which paved the way for Pfizer's and Moderna's Covid-19 vaccines, also earned them the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
RNA, a molecule that originates in the nucleus of cells, has the primary function of "reading" the information contained in DNA and transmitting it so that the organism can generate what it needs. The work of Hungarian biochemist Katalin Karikó and American immunologist Drew Weissman focused on research to turn this molecule into a disease-curing therapy. Both scientists have now received the Nobel Prize in Medicine, with a bright future outlook. Their discovery served to curb the pandemic, and could also become a treatment for several types of cancer and other diseases.
The pioneers of attosecond physics
In the Physics category, this year's Nobel Prizes honored Anne L’Huillier, Pierre Agostini and Ferenc Krausz for their work in "photographing," for the first time, the movement of electrons within atoms. These tiny subatomic particles undergo processes that take place in an 'attosecond:' one trillionth of a second. This is the shortest time scale ever observed by human beings.
The laser light tools created by Anne L'Huillier, Paul Corkum (a Frontiers awardee but not a Nobel laureate) and Ferenc Krausz may have applications in areas such as electronics, disease diagnosis, the development of new materials and the search for clean sources of energy. This was recognized earlier this year by the committee of the BBVA Foundation awards in the Basic Sciences category.
L'Huillier has harnessed the visibility garnered from these awards to encourage women to pursue the dream of scientific research, a career where the gender gap is especially wide.
The forerunner of gender gap studies
The study of inequality between men and women in the workplace is precisely the field of study of Claudia Goldin, who has received the Nobel Prize in Economics four years after being awarded the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the same discipline.
Goldin published "Understanding the Gender Gap" in 1990, a work in which she examined the U.S. labor market with data dating back to the 19th century to explain the gender gap and draw a portrait of how women's work has evolved throughout the 20th century. In her research, she concluded that inequality is not diminished if the economy grows. Rather, its development is far more complex and depends on a variety of factors. Goldin is the third woman in history to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, after Elinor Ostrom and fellow Frontiers laureate Esther Duflo.
The 26 winners honored by the BBVA Foundation and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Eleven Frontiers laureates have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics: Lars Peter Hansen (2013), Jean Tirole (2014), Angus Deaton (2015), William Nordhaus (2018), Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo (2019), Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson (2020), David Card (2021), Ben Bernanke (2022) and Claudia Goldin (2023).
Six Frontiers laureates subsequently received the Nobel Prize in Medicine from the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet: Shinya Yamanaka (2011), James P. Allison (2018), David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian (2021) and Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman (2023).
Six Frontiers Prize winners have also received the award from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in the category of Physics: Didier Queloz and Michel G. E. Mayor (2019), Klaus Hasselman and Syukuru Manabe (2021), and Ferenc Krausz and Anne L’Huillier (2023).
Finally, in the case of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, three Frontiers laureates went on to receive the award from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences: Robert J. Lefkowitz in 2012, and Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna in 2020.
Awards with a global reach
The Frontiers of Knowledge Awards recognize and encourage contributions of unique impact, especially those that broaden the scope of what is known, bring about the emergence of new fields or are the result of interaction between different disciplines in science, the arts and the humanities.
The awards, worth €400,000 in each category, have become internationally established as the only family of global awards that places research on the planet on the same level as basic science, medicine or economics.