As a Nobel laureate, Prof Frances Arnold is not short of accolades. Yet being the only woman to so far win the Millennium Technology Prize – the Nobel equivalent for engineers – is one of the least appealing.
Nominations for the €1m 2024 prize closed last week, and the organisers have revealed that women formed just 16.3% of nominees, the highest of any year since the biennial award’s launch in 2004, apart from the 28.1% put forward in 2022.
“We’d love to see more diversity in the winners of these prizes because we know that diverse people contribute to technology,” Arnold, an American chemical engineer, told the Observer.
The award organiser, Technology Academy Finland (TAF), has pushed the scientific and engineering community to think about women when they consider innovations towards creating a better life.
Tim Berners-Lee was the inaugural winner in 2004 for inventing the world wide web, while others have been recognised for DNA fingerprinting, fibre optic networks and stem cell research. But Arnold said it would take time for more women to join her.
“It’s important to remember that these prizes are often recognising work that was started 20, maybe even 30 years ago, when women were not as numerous in the technology community as they are today,” she said. “So my prediction is that there will be more nominations for women because marvellous women are joining the technology community.
“Also, it’s possible women are not recognised as much because they work in teams. And these kinds of prize often try to pinpoint a contribution of one or a few – very few – individuals.”
Arnold said she was “thrilled” to have received the prize in 2016 for her work on directed evolution of enzymes. “I’m an engineer by training, and it’s a huge prize for engineers – you can think of it as the Nobel prize for engineers. Two years later, I won the Nobel prize [in chemistry] – I don’t know how those are connected, but it was for basically the same sets of ideas.”
Winning took “a lot of hard work”, she said. “And taking the blows and standing back up again. You have to be willing to take the criticism and do the hard work. I never shied away from that. I certainly wasn’t going to let someone else have all the fun. I love research, I love invention. Why would I let the men have all the fun?”
In addition to her research, Arnold also co-chairs President Joe Biden’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and teaches at the California Institute of Technology.
“Half of our undergraduates are women. So the pipeline is there. Whether they stay to compete in academic research is another question.”
Women often choose to “look more widely” than men and often go into leadership positions in industry, Arnold said, where “maybe their potential for making these big discoveries is not as great”.
Her own big discovery was that she could breed enzymes like others breed sheep or yeast. In directed evolution, unlike natural selection, enzymes are encouraged to mutate then selected by engineers for specific properties that are useful, such as for creating fuels, medicines, chemicals and consumer goods. Until then, most scientists had attempted to understand how each part of the enzyme worked so they could design enzymes.
It is similar to the black box approach of artificial intelligence, she said. “There are a lot of parallels with AI and not just generative AI, but with artificial intelligence. Because these are navigating complex problems. Engineering an enzyme is a tremendously complex problem where we can’t sit down and specify all the interactions that are important in the design – nobody’s been able to do that.
“So machine learning and AI are very good at seeing the important patterns. We may not perceive it in the same way that the machine does it. But the machine catches those patterns and can greatly speed up the process of enzyme engineering. I do a lot of AI work myself.
“They’re both methodologies for traversing complex landscapes, we’d say. And you can meld them. Evolutionary search is a very simple search process on a complex landscape. Machine learning can do it in a different way. And there are many opportunities for melding these processes.”
TAF is keen for more people to nominate women for its prize. Dr Markku Ellilä, the academy’s chief executive, said: “The problem is structural and requires that women are encouraged to work in science at a young age. We aim to participate in this work through cooperation with universities and, for instance, by organising pitching contests for doctoral students and nominating candidates for Singapore’s Global Young Scientists Summit.”
The chair of the academy’s board, Minna Palmroth, professor in computational space physics, said that progress was being made. “Within this nominations round we pilot-tested purely women-targeted content in our nominations campaign, which gained promising results. However, there is still a lot to do, and that is why the prize will continue to encourage an increasing number of women to be nominated in the coming years.”