Eclipsing Nobel

Listening to older bigshot academics talking among themselves, I find they talk surprisingly often about the Nobel prize – who deserves it, who is being considered, who is lobbying how to win, who should have won but didn’t, and so on.  Their lust is obvious; the influence of the Nobel prize on elite academic incentives is far out of proportion to the money involved.   

It is surprising to see academia so influenced by one rich man from a century ago, rather than by rich men today.  Prizes once mattered much more than they do today, and I expect a comeback:  sometime in the next few decades I expect someone to pay a billion or two in an attempt to displace the Nobel prize.  Compared to the usual academic money-influence ratio, this would be quite a bargain.   To succeed, this new Post-Nobel prize should:

  • offer a prize amount ten or one hundred times the Nobel prize,
  • create a correlation between who wins and who elite academics think should win that is not much worse than with the Nobel prize, and
  • do this consistently for a decade or two, and appear able to continue indefinitely.

This task is not trivial, but quite feasible.   I hope, however, that this patron sets himself a higher goal: to increase the correlation between winners and their long-term intellectual contribution.  I suggest making heavy use of posterity review:

  • create a perpetual process wherein historians evaluate the influence of academics from a century before,
  • create long term betting markets that estimate today the influence evaluations of those future historians, and
  • each year give N new prizes to the N living people who have not yet won, for whom the betting markets show the highest positive influence estimates. 

Under this system people would stop lobbying the prize committee, and start to lobby market speculators and future historians. 

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  • http://www.scottaaronson.com Scott Aaronson

    Robin, at least in physics (the Nobel area I know best), I think that the Nobels already correlate pretty well with which discoveries future generations regard as important. (Partly just because the academy often waits for a future generation’s verdict!) If you wanted to find a domain where prediction markets would give a big marginal advantage over what people are doing currently, the science Nobels are not the first place I’d look.

    Having said that, the Nobel does have some serious, well-known flaws stemming from Nobel’s will, and my advice to your hypothetical billionaire founding a new prize would be to fix them.

    Firstly, I’d try to decrease the importance of staying alive long enough for the committee to get around to you — either by allowing posthumous prizes, or (better yet) by allowing more flexibility in how many prizes are awarded in a given year. Hopefully that would correct some of the historic injustices, like Hubble and Mendeleev being denied the prize.

    Secondly, I’d allow more flexibility in how many people can share a prize. Usually it’s hard to argue with the academy’s choice of discoveries, but easy to argue with its choice of which 2-3 people should be recognized for a given discovery, among the half-dozen or more who were directly involved. (Historically, this problem often resulted in women being passed over for the prize: Rosalind Franklin, Lise Meitner, Jocelyn Bell, Chien-Shiung Wu.)

    Lastly, I’d make sure that math and computer science were among the prize categories. Certainly these fields have contributed at least as much to human welfare as (to pick a random example) economics :-), and I think their lower public cachet than biology, chemistry, and physics has a lot to do with what Alfred Nobel knew and considered important 100 years ago. Alternatively, I might just abandon categories entirely and give prizes in any area of science, including areas that didn’t exist at the time the prize was founded. (This is the approach taken by, for example, the MacArthur prizes.)

  • Doug S.

    The Nobel Prize is not about money (today, at least). It’s about prestige. If it came with no money at all, people would still be preoccupied with it. (You don’t get a cash purse with an Oscar and people still care, although winning an Oscar probably does affect future opportunities.)

  • Douglas Knight

    To expand on what the other Doug said, how much do economists gossip about the JBC? It has little money attached, but the NPV of having it on one’s CV could be larger because it is obtained early in life. On the other hand, it is less known outside of academia, which is relevant to NPV.

    Further, it is a very good predictor of a Nobel. Does that mean its committees is good, or that its verdict has too much impact on the Nobel committee? A third possibility is that prestige opens doors and makes prizewinners better.

  • agent00yak

    How large would the pay out from the betting market have to be to avoid people gaming the market?

    As the size of the New-Nobel payout is large, these markets would have to be very large and liquid (Especially considering that you are comparing the present value of the New-Nobel to the discounted future price of the market settlement). Large liquid markets don’t usually appear overnight. If the price is tied to the prediction market results, the payout would have to scale up with the prize over time.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Scott, I plan to post someday soon on your “we don’t need it” comment.

    Doug, the question is where that prestige comes from. For the Nobel, the money initially helped it to gain that prestige.

    Agent, enough liquidity would arise because people would try to manipulate it. See and here.

  • agent00yak

    I meant to say the payout would have to scale up with liquidity, not with the prize.

    Robin: Perhaps you are correct. I agree with your stance on PAM. For the current market you are suggesting, the market would have to also be trustworthy enough to attract the informed traders. As the payout gets farther away, the risk of the market increases and the incentive for informed traders to jump in decreases. This makes future predictions less viable than PAM.

    The papers do suggest that the prize should be awarded based on an average market price, not on a market price at a specific date.

    There is also more to be worried about than the manipulator in the present. Future historians might also be biased by the opportunity to profit by increasing the citation count (Or whatever metric you use) of lower priced yet viable academics.

  • http://socialscienceplusplus.blogspot.com Brendan O’Connor

    I suspect it would be extremely difficult to displace the Nobel in a discipline where it already exists. The point of prestige is that it is a scarce resource; during the transition from the Nobel to the new award, they would necessarily both have a lower amount of prestige. To the extent that Nobel disciplines have and want a high-prestige award, it will be incredibly difficult to move into that transition zone.

    However, there is a good shot in disciplines that do not have a Nobel — for example, math and computer science have their own top-prestige awards (Fields and Turing, respectively); but a new one that cut across disciplines would be appreciated for its value in communicating to outsiders.

  • http://www.acceleratingfuture.com/michael/blog Michael Anissimov
  • http://ww.yahoo.co.uk Firozali A.Mulla MBA PhD

    Noble price is not for money. I agree. Tennis Wimbledon practice of many years and get a trophy of a shining cup is not worth the effort you put into where by you could have earned more as a tennis coach. But then what is it? Sir. It is the as you state THE NOBLE PRICE. It stands out that you have done something decent for the humans disproving Darwin or Malthusians.
    I mean this as the hypothesis. But why Rashdi got the noble price is a surprise that I cannot understand. All Muslims are upset. Is this noble price?
    Here are the reasons why the noble prices are given.
    You have contributed something to the human in medicine, money, decent living, helping poor, having the watch full eyes for the global warming and doing something about this
    ( No one has got this), or making human lives better like Grammen Bank or the Good Author or Carter for peace pact.
    But you state right. At times the wrong decision is made. Here is the example of one. Lady Diana did lots for the poor and gave smile. Did she get the noble price? No. All the notorious publications came in fact to upset her lives of the younger ones. John F. Kennedy stopped the Cuba embargo. Did he get the noble price? No sir. A bullet planted by the politicians killed him and we still are looking for the bullet from 1963 I guess we ought to give the CIA and FBI the noble price for putting in the effort to hunt for the hunted.
    When you call the Noble price I honestly laugh at time. What exactly are you looking for to give the person a noble price?
    May be when we become wise we shall know. To give a vague idea we had seven wonders now these have been renamed, Pluto is kicked out and Earth has lost weight.
    I think I will stick to Tom and Jerry show sir. They at least relieve my aches some how!!!

    Firozali A.Mulla MBA PhD
    P.O.Box 6044
    Dar-Es-Salaam
    Tanzania
    East Africa.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Robin, I agree with your post. I think the Nobel Prize is fairly easily displaceable, and prizes of 100x greater in value for the same disciplines, that don’t do a more controverial job at picking winners than the Nobel Prize currently does, and with an equal pomp and circumstance ceremony, will displace it.