Friday, October 06, 2006

Home Runs, Base Hits, and Nobel Prizes

Because this is Nobel season, faculty lunch at Harvard this week turned, naturally, to speculation about possible winners of the economics prize, which is to be announced Monday. (My older colleagues happened to be absent. Otherwise, the topic would have be a bit too awkward to broach.) I won't repeat the speculation about names, but a broader issue came up: What should the criterion be?

There was an apparent consensus that the Nobel committee prefers rewarding people for a few path-breaking works, rather than judging an entire career of contributions. Is this optimal?

If the goal is to provide researchers with the right incentives, it may not be. It is as if a baseball team paid players based only on the number of home runs. We would have too many players swinging for the bleachers and too few base hits. In economics, maybe we get too many of the best people trying to create new paradigms and too few engaged in more routine, applied research.

Update: Tyler Cowen has an interesting take on what the Nobel committee should aim for:

I see the welfare-maximizing use of the Nobel Prize as generating more publicity for economics, attracting more people to study the science, and giving the science greater credibility in the eyes of politicians, the public, and media. That means the committee should give prizes to economists who are articulate, intelligible, scholarly, and work on topics of real world interest. So far they have done a great job; let's hope for another first-rate pick.
The Nobel winners have extraordinary scholarly accomplishments, but compared to the typical top 1000 economist, are they really much more articulate, intelligible, and focused on topics of real world interest? I would like to think so, but I am not sure.