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The Value of Scientific Prizes

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

As the number of prizes for scientific achievement rises, the debate over their effects on scientists and science continues.

Next week, as every autumn, the winners of the Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine, Physics, and Chemistry will be announced. The news always reminds me of my time as a science book acquisition editor, when I discovered quickly that the research community had two main convictions about them and other major prizes for scientific achievements. The first was that public attention benefited science and medicine as a whole and was a powerful incentive for excellence and for recruiting young people and sustaining them in the early and often difficult beginnings of their careers. The second was that precisely because of the public visibility and influence that the Nobel in particular conveys, actually winning it threatens the productivity of men and women who otherwise might have developed important new ideas.

There are intriguing new results on this old debate, one of many contested issues surrounding the prizes. To understand the latest findings, we need to go back decades to the beginnings of field work in the sociology of scientific prestige.

The Noble Nobel

In her classic 1977 work Scientific Elite: Nobel Laureates in the United States, and in her new introduction to a 1995 reprint, the sociologist Harriet Zuckerman gave a qualified but still positive endorsement of the Nobel’s effect. She found that the lore about its harmful consequences was often exaggerated and argued that hyper competitiveness, as evident in James D. Watson’s The Double Helix (1968), was reflected rather than caused by the prize. The age of “sharp elbows” (as one Nobel Laureate characterized it) did not begin until the postwar research boom, fifty years after the first prizes were awarded.

Winners of the most prestigious prizes may become less productive, yet the net effect of the awards may indeed be positive.

Zuckerman was skeptical of other criticisms of the prize, for example that it focuses attention on external rewards rather than the process of discovery itself, and that it distorts research by encouraging work on “prizable” problems and making more challenging, theoretical, and high-risk topics less attractive. She found mainly that the Nobel reflects a much broader pattern of scientific stratification and the cumulative momentum of careers. The sociologist Robert Merton refers to this as the Matthew Effect, from the passage in that Gospel (25:29): “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.” The Nobel science prizes generally depend on research that needs increasingly expensive laboratories, instruments, and skilled graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. (As Zuckerman observes, the original $40,000 Nobel honorarium was four times the entire research grant of Cambridge’s renowned Cavendish Laboratory of Physics). But these resources are generally only available to people with already elite records at well-funded institutions. It becomes harder for others, no matter how promising their ideas, to break into the club. The prizes didn’t create this feedback loop, though. Backgrounds of Nobel runners-up, as revealed by the Nobel Foundation’s archives, are similar to those of the winners.

Contrary to popular belief, not even winning the Nobel guarantees eternal greatness in the eyes of your peers. Paradoxically, its prestige may discourage some other awards in what Zuckerman calls an Anti-Matthew Effect. Since no other scientific prizes, even those with stipends deliberately exceeding those of the Nobel, have equaled its prestige, the next best thing is to honor future Nobel laureates. The Lasker Foundation home page, for example, declares proudly that its awards for health “often presage future recognition by the Nobel committee.” Conversely, the advantages of receiving the Nobel usually depend on using its prestige to help advance colleagues and students. As one biochemist laureate put it, “They come if they think you have something to offer,” not just for the aura of the prize. Nobel oblige.

Embracing New Fields

In the original work and in her new introduction almost 20 years ago, Zuckerman underscored how many questions on the effects of prizes remained to be answered. A working paper by the economists George J. Borjas of Harvard’s Kennedy School and Kirk B. Doran of Notre Dame, reported on the site Business Insider (and reprinted in turn by Slate), supplies an important new insight that suggests both sides of the debate may be right. Winners of the most prestigious prizes may become less productive, yet the net effect of the awards may indeed be positive.

Does this confirm the suspicion that major prizes remove incentives to productivity? It may suggest that a great idea is a once-in-a-lifetime event. The Nobel Prizes have no age limit, yet only three people have received two prizes for scientific work.

Borjas and Doran studied winners and also-rans of the Fields Medal, one of the rare prizes that has achieved parity with the Nobel in the public eye. (Some connoisseurs of honors consider the Royal Society’s Copley Medal, awarded since 1731, the most prestigious of all. It is not only one of the oldest prizes but also comprises more scientific fields and is limited to a single award annually. Still, its restriction to Commonwealth citizens and recent residents has limited attention from American science journalists). The reason for the Fields Medal’s parity with the Nobel is Alfred Nobel’s omission of pure mathematics – John Nash’s prize is in economics – and urban legends about his decision. The medal’s four-year intervals, its restriction since 1960 to mathematicians under 40 (Andrew Wiles was ineligible because he was 41 by the time he had proved Fermat’s last theorem), and even its refusal by the Russian genius Grigory Perelman – have all enhanced its aura.

The new research has revealed that Fields winners do indeed appear to produce less than other contenders – those recognized by other important prizes – after their success. Five and ten years later, they are publishing only about three papers per year, while the others average nearly five. After 20 years, the gap is even greater: an average of five papers annually for the runners-up and a bit more than half that for the winners. Surprisingly, winners also are cited less often than other highly regarded mathematicians after they were awarded the prize, and they also mentor fewer younger mathematicians, even though we would expect the opposite from the halo effect of the medal.

Does this confirm the suspicion that major prizes remove incentives to productivity? It may suggest that a great idea is a once-in-a-lifetime event. The Nobel Prizes have no age limit, yet only three people – Marie Curie (Physics and Chemistry), John Bardeen (Physics), and Frederick Sanger (Chemistry) – have received two prizes for scientific work. (Linus Pauling’s second Nobel was the Peace Prize). Even Einstein received only one, for the photoelectric effect. The Nobel Committee may have planned to award a second prize for relativity after more experimental confirmations; it never did.

But there is another side to the story. The Fields Medal creates what economists call a wealth effect, and its net results may be positive. Those who have won their discipline’s highest prize may not just be resting on their laurels but using their prestige to take new directions.Borjas and Doran term this behavior  “cognitive mobility,” moving into unfamiliar research topics, including some outside pure mathematics. Their data suggest that Fields Medalists do so at a rate far beyond that of other elite mathematicians. Ten years after receiving the award, almost 30 percent of the former but less than 10 percent of the latter have ventured into new disciplines. They might be compared to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who have achieved security by selling their first company and are launching new startups in other industries.

Those who have won their discipline’s highest prize may not just be resting on their laurels but using their prestige to take new directions.

Cognitive mobility out of pure mathematics may be an unintended consequence of the Fields Medal if its aim is considered narrowly. But it also might be a favorable one for science as a whole. Borjas and Doran cite three outstanding examples. The topologist René Thom became even more renowned as a pioneer of catastrophe theory (the study of chaotic behavior in nature and human society); it was even applied to cultural cycles by the British anthropologist Michael Thompson in his brilliant book Rubbish Theory. Another Fields Medalist in topology, Stephen Smale, also became a major contributor to theoretical economics, as well as to the physics of oscillations. The algebraic geometer David Mumford has helped shape vision and pattern theory.

Like entrepreneurs, scientists moving into different fields have a high failure rate, especially when attacking a new and challenging area of research. The experience recalls Warren Buffett’s warning in business: “When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.” The real risk may be that the winner of a prize, fortified by enhanced self-esteem, starts with a frontal assault on a major problem before all the necessary groundwork has been laid by others.

One of the founders of computer science and wisest observers of research careers, R. W. Hamming, presented the dilemma in a profound conference paper over 25 years ago. In entering new fields, Nobel Laureates and other winners of major prizes tackle the biggest problems immediately as the only ones worthy of their standing. “They fail,” Hamming observed, “to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn't the way things go. So that is another reason why you find that when you get early recognition it seems to sterilize you.” He cited a former Bell Labs colleague who had vowed publicly upon winning the Nobel to remain “good old Walter Brattain” yet succumbed to the temptation of prematurely attacking a big problem.

The lasting effect of the major awards may be neither their incentive for aspiring scientists nor their benefits for the successful few but the freedom they give for taking intellectual risks.

Hamming’s criticism should be qualified. Sometimes even a disappointing assault on a great problem may be productive. Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double helix with James Watson, never did make a comparable breakthrough on the physiological basis of consciousness as he had hoped, yet his colleagues at the Salk Institute found him to be a great intellectual catalyst and mentor. As a form of wealth in economists’ terms, the Nobel Prize gave him a chance to become a philanthropist.

In any case, prizes are here to stay. When the Dodo bird declared in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that “everybody has won and all must have prizes,” the mathematician Lewis Carroll could hardly have imagined in 1865 how awards would proliferate. According to Harriet Zuckerman, the number of scientific prizes grew from about 600 to 3,000 from 1975 to 1995 alone. Far from diluting the value of  older prizes like the Nobel and Fields, expansion has only increased them. Thanks to research by social scientists like Zuckerman, Borjas, Doran, and others, we have a better understanding of how they work.

The lasting effect of the major awards may be neither their incentive for aspiring scientists nor their benefits for the successful few but the freedom they give for taking intellectual risks. Research programs of all kinds, in the humanities and social sciences no less than in physics and mathematics, often reach points of diminishing returns. We need to think about better ways to encourage cognitive mobility – inside and outside of science.

Edward Tenner is author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences and Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity. He is a visiting researcher in the Rutgers Department of History and the Princeton Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies.

FURTHER READING: Tenner also writes “The Perpetual Passion for Paper” and “Dreams of a New Atlantic-Pacific Passage.” Aparna Mathur explains “A ‘Genius’ Way to Avoid Taxes.” Vaclav Smil contributes “A Son of Europe Reflects on the EU’s Nobel Prize” while Daniel Hanson discusses “Value Free? A Nobel Debate.” Mark J. Perry writes how “U.S. Culture Rewards Innovation and Risk-Taking” and asks if there’s a “Significant Inequality for Nobel Prizes?

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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