Retire the Nobel Prize

I’ve felt for sometime now that perhaps we should retire the Nobel Prize.  The money could be used to fund grants, set up an institute for peace and science, or even have a Nobel conference like TED.  The prize puts too much emphasis on individual achievement and in many instances misplaced emphasis.  The old view of science involving the lone explorer seeking truth in the wilderness needs to be updated to a new metaphor of the sandpile, as used to described self-organized criticality by Per Bak, Chao Tang, and Kurt Wiesenfeld.  In the sandpile model, individual grains of sand are dropped on the pile and every once in awhile there are “avalanches” where a bunch of grains cascade down.  The distribution of avalanche sizes is a power law.  Hence, there is no scale to avalanches and there is no grain that is more special than any other.

This is just like science.  The contributions of scientists and nonscientists are like grains of sand dropping on the sandpile of knowledge and every once in awhile a big scientific avalanche is triggered.  The answer to the question of who triggered the avalanche is that everyone contributed to it.  The Nobel Prize rewards a few of the grains of sand that happened to be proximally located to some specific avalanche (and sometimes not) but the rewarded work always depended on something else.

Even if you think this “everyone contributes” idea a little too postmodern for your taste there can be no arguing that the awarding of the prize can be quite arbitrary.  There have always been glaring omissions like Jocelyn Bell Burnell not receiving the prize even though she was the one who discovered pulsars and Freeman Dyson, who’s contribution to developing renormalization theory for QED was certainly deserving of one.  If anyone deserved the peace prize, it probably would be Ghandi, who famously didn’t get one.  The fact that there are always debates about who is deserving and who was snubbed just demonstrates the arbitrariness of it all.

It is also not clear what benefit the Nobel Prize brings to the world.  Certainly a handful of lucky people get very well rewarded by receiving one but in many cases they were already doing quite well without the prize.  Maybe the Nobel Prize should be reserved for people not doing well – like Douglas Prasher, the shuttle bus driver who was instrumental in discovering the gene for green flourescent protein that resulted in last year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry.  I think Nobel would rather have the money spent actually trying to bring peace to the world rather than giving it to head’s of state that should be doing it as part of their job anyway.

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11 thoughts on “Retire the Nobel Prize

  1. I don’t know, Carson. I was actually thinking that there ought to be more Nobel-like awards in science.

    As economists like to say, people respond to incentives. In the private sector, one is rewarded for their ambition and hard work. (A lawyer pockets bonus money if they work extra, and IT employees are monetarily rewarded for novel ideas and solutions). In science, there are comparatively fewer incentives.

    Take away the prestige and money of prizes, and scientists are really left with nothing to aspire to.

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  2. I think there are plenty of incentives already. Keeping your job and grant seems to be a strong enough incentive for most people. I don’t mean we should get rid of all prizes. I just think we should get rid of the Nobel prize because it’s a misaligned incentive. This may be a stretch of an analogy but in Bali there are some mini-volcanoes that tourists like to visit. At the bottom are scores of locals trying to be guides. The going rate is something like a dollar or less for the day but sometimes they can get a tourist to pay a hundred dollars or more, which is several months to a year’s salary. What this has done is to encourage people who had real jobs like teachers that pay nothing to hang out at these sites and try to score the jackpot. The Nobel is so out of proportion with any other prize that it can also have a negative impact on things as documented in the book Nobel Dreams. Look at everything Newton, Euler, Gauss, Riemann, Darwin, etc did without looking forward to the Nobel.

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  3. Hello again Carson,

    I think we disagree on several aspects, but we also agree on some. I agree that science has become less individualistic, and that a single prize is not enough to reward those (perhaps many) who stand out among their peers. Hence my vote to create more prizes, with more money.

    But I disagree that keeping one’s job/grant is a good form of incentive. Try applying that principle to your company and you’ll quickly learn that your best talent pool will seek rewards elsewhere.

    In the old days of those names you mentioned, becoming a prominent scientist was arguably the only route to achieving prestige and fame in society (other than being born in a wealthy family).

    Today, I’d argue, many Newtons and Eulers are in the private sector, seeking rewards that science can’t give them.

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  4. Well perhaps more prizes will dilute the lottery effect of the Nobel, so maybe you have a point.

    Although, I just don’t believe that Gauss, Euler or Darwin were motivated by fame and prestige. Darwin was already in the gentry class while Gauss and Euler were productive well after they were recognized and rewarded for their genius. Also, who’s to say that those that went into the private sector aren’t more useful for society.

    Too bad we couldn’t do an experiment of a world with and without the Nobel to see how it affected progress.

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  5. There is something to the metaphor but it seems to suggest that a Nobel idea is a Eureka moment that starts the avalanche. If you look at the CVs of the Nobel winners, however, you see that they are not like every other grain of sand. The Nobel winners write many more papers than average, their papers are cited more often (and not just the “key” papers), they are in better journals, they have more students etc. There are exceptions, Kary Mullis for PCR is one example that fits your story but those look like the exceptions rather than the rule. e.g. Do you really think that Bardeen who won two Nobel prizes in physics was really just a grain of sand!

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  6. Hi Alex,

    Thanks for your comment. I actually wasn’t proposing that a Nobel idea is a Eureka moment. I was more suggesting that people and their careers all contribute to our collective knowledge. Some of the grains may be boulders and some may be little specks of dust. While it may be more likely to trigger an avalanche if you are a big boulder like Bardeen, the result was still built on contributions from everyone, including the lab technicians at Bell Labs. Bardeen was already well rewarded for his brilliance absent of the Nobel prize. His colleague at Bell Labs, Claude Shannon was probably equally brilliant and produced arguably as important a body of work, and lived a long and prosperous life in the absence of a Nobel prize. Thus my real question is whether or not the Nobel money could be put to better use.

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  7. Found this by the link from your post titled “Using formal logic in biology”. I don’t have a strong opinion for or against, but the Prize seems very unique in it’s ability to garner attention from those outside of a field who might not otherwise know about it. Also, the controversies themselves bring to light interesting histories that might not otherwise become so well documented. For example, you mention the case of Ghandi. Interestingly, nobelprize.org actually has an article on this: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/articles/gandhi/
    For me, it highlights how complex things can really be.

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  8. […] While the three new laureates are all excellent scientists and deserving of the prize, this is still another example of how the Nobel prize singles out individuals at the expense of other important contributors. O’Keefe’s coauthor on the 1971 paper, Jonathan Dovstrosky, was not awarded. I’ve also been told that my former colleague at the University of Pittsburgh, Bill Skaggs, was the one who pointed out to the Mosers that the patterns in their data corresponded to grid cells. Bill was one of the most brilliant scientists I have known but did not secure tenure and is not directly involved in academic research anymore as far as I know. The academic system should find a way to maximize the skills of people like Bill and Douglas Prasher. […]

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