Do Nobel Prizes Discourage Research?

Shadows in the lab
Shadows in the lab
Jean-Marc Vittori

PARIS — Are Nobel Prizes a wicked luxury?

This year, like every year for more than a century, Scandinavian juries will honor researchers in physics, chemistry and medicine, an author, and a man or a woman who contributed to peace. The season will end with the presentation of the latest prize, created a little more than 40 years ago, the “Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.”

All of this will lead to prestigious ceremonies on December 10, filled with nice, well-intentioned speeches — and to a 900,000-euro transfer on the bank account of each category’s lucky winner.

But by allowing these annual rites of good work and good will, doesn’t humanity run the risk of denying itself major discoveries?

Granted, a prestigious award can have a major impact on the life of the one that it honors. The most visible effect is with the media. Nobel Prize winners have an open forum; they will always able to find some journalist willing to lend them the floor — be it to talk about their field of research, or to say anything about any topic whatsoever.

Such sudden presumptuousness has no consequence for Literature or Peace Prize winners, because we are used to hearing authors or politicians engaging in this type of exercise. It is, however, more disturbing for scientists.

Every year, the Davos World Economic Forum invites a handful of Nobel winners, delighted to talk about topics in which they have no particular competence. Maurice Allais, the only Frenchman to have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics, in 1988, wound up spending subsequent years writing screeds against free trade, which were published by the French daily Le Figaro. He had been honored for his works on market mathematization, a field that is very far from theories on international trade.

No less troubling is that when a knighted scientist is speaking in a television studio, he or she is no longer working in his lab. Meaning less research. Two economists have just proven that about the Fields Medals — sometimes nicknamed “the Nobel Prize in Mathematics” — awarded once every four years to a few math wizards under the age of 40. By creating the award that bears his name in the 1930s, Canadian mathematician John Fields wanted to recognize both work completed and point to the potential for future achievement.

Alas! George Borjas, from Harvard, and Kirk Doran, from Indiana's University of Notre Dame, show that reality functions very differently. Basing their work on archives of the American Mathematical Society, they compared the productivity of awarded researchers and other high-profile mathematicians (publications, quotes in other scientists’ articles, number of students). Their conclusion leaves no room for doubt: “The productivity of the Fields medalists — regardless of how it is measured — declines noticeably relative to that of the contenders in the post-medal period,” whereas their unlucky rivals’ productivity tends to increase in the following 20 years.

A public role

The two economists do not however want to risk missing out on a prize for revealing its toxicity: They note that awards in physics and even in economics can open the way to financing that may significantly increase the winners’ post-prize productivity — something maybe less crucial in mathematics, where you only need a sheet of paper and a pen (it is actually one of the reasons France excels in this field).

Borjas and Doran also could have highlighted the fact that the risk of breaking the scientific productivity is smaller with Nobel winners, because they are awarded later in life. Physicists are on average rewarded at the age of 55; doctors at 57. Economists are honored at 67, as if the jury wanted to be sure that the distinguished work’s mark was thorough enough to have a chance to stand the test of time.

Leonid Hurwicz was crowned at 90; Ronald Coase was distinguished for two articles, the first one written more than half a century before the other, and William Vickrey died of a heart attack when he learned that he won a Nobel Prize at 82. It is no slight to these venerable researchers to venture the hypothesis of a loss of productivity because of a Nobel Prize.

In economics, the risk of breaking productivity is greater with the John Bates Clark Medal, awarded to researchers under 40. At first sight, it doesn't seem to be the case. Milton Friedman kept on producing major works after 1951. The same goes for Robert Solow (1961), Joseph Stiglitz (1979), Andrei Schleifer (1999), Emmanuel Saez (2009) and Esther Duflo (2010). We impatiently await Borjas and Doran’s work on the issue, to contradict or confirm this impression.

But after all … Where is a bright researcher the most useful, in his lab or a TV studio? In the age of fundamental breakthroughs, a lab used to be essential. Today, science is progressing with small steps rather than giant leaps. Cedric Villani, the 2010 Fields winner, is maybe more useful to mathematics by showing to a large public the importance of this fascinating branch, instead of digging further into the Bolzmann equation.

And the next Frenchman to be awarded the Nobel in Economics will similarly have a singular public role to fill: to see if he can explain to his fellow citizens — and government — a thing or two about economic reasoning.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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