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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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