Prizes for Teams?

The Nobel prize for physics this year was controversial. It wasn’t controversial because of the idea ‘wot won it’ but the number of people who contributed to that idea. However, the Nobel prize has a rule that there can be at most three recipients in a given year. (That doesn’t apply to Peace but it does to the others). As this BBC report outlines, that left a few claimants and at least one entire organisation (CERN) out in the cold for all that kudos.

So should teams be awarded Nobel prizes? The Royal Society took a look and decided that individuals matter more. Here is Paul Nurse (and if you don’t know who he is listen to this wonderful Moth talk):

“When you are on the platform and you are shaking hands with the King of Sweden and the cameras are all on you, you would not be able to recognise Cern. If there were 20 of you, it would lose the kudos of the one, two or three people that are actually there,” according to Prof Nurse.

Now I don’t think what he means here is that it is a problem of organising a royal audience. Instead, he actually believes that the prize should be awarded to people sparingly so that it means more.

The interesting question is why. If an entire organization wins a Nobel prize that would be a cause for celebration of that organization but is it likely to pit organization against organization in a race to win a Nobel? Regardless of what you think about that outcome, I suspect that it won’t. It was the discovery itself that mattered and allowed CERN to procure the millions required to build machines to test the Higgs theory. The Nobel doesn’t seem to add to incentives in any meaningful way. Acknowledgement is already there.

By contrast, let’s consider individuals. In this particular case, it seems that the three who won were, in fact, the pioneers while others were very significant follow-on researchers. This is not to denigrate following on. It is that activity that pulled the pieces together to give value to the entire program. They were just as essential. They just weren’t the first step.

The incentives here are more problematic. Award only the pioneers and the followers don’t have an incentive to follow. In that case, neither them nor the pioneers get anything. Award the followers at the exclusion of the pioneers and perhaps the reverse is true. Either way, there is a real difficulty here if the number of researchers whose creativity generates a piece of knowledge is increasing. The Nobel committee is forced to make hard calls but those calls appear incompatible with the incentives. That said, a clever committee could award the prizes in successive years to make up for this. The interesting question is why they don’t. Is it because there is always another idea with a smaller team that should receive an award above a follow-on team and they can’t commit to it?

That commitment problem could be solved. For instance, the cap of three per year could be extended to allow borrowing. The Nobel committee could award the prize to six people in one year and be prevented from awarding a prize in the next year. Or, alternatively, it could move to a set of prizes every two or three years but with a bigger cap. The cap of three is tied to the yearly award not necessarily to the overall value of the prize in terms of the ‘stock of recipients.’

In summary, I think there is a growing issue here but it is one that could be accommodated without undermining the value of the system or, for that matter, tiring out the hand of the King of Sweden.

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