This post is brought on by an article I saw a while back about how winning awards changes people, which summarizes a recent paper by George Borjas and Kirk Doran on Prizes and Productivity: How winning the Fields medal affects scientific output. The basic question in these articles is quite interesting:
What happens to researchers after they win major awards?
A pessimist might suggest that, upon receiving a major award, a researcher might start to “slack off.” It’s natural to think that after working hard for years to reach the pinnacle of their field, upon receiving the recognition, a certain loss of motivation might occur that could lead to a post-award slump… If we think of tenure as a major award, then it is certainly conventional wisdom that a post-tenure slump is common.
Basically, Borjas and Doran empirically tested this idea using data about the Fields medal, which is basically the Nobel prize of mathematics. It is given to the top 2-4 mathematicians younger than 40 once every four years.
Here’s the key plot from the paper. It shows the number of papers per year for Fields medalists and contenders who did not receive the prize.
Of course, number of papers is a weak measure of academic productivity, but still the message of the plot is compelling. The contenders and the medalists were comparable before receiving the award, but there is a large (statistically significant) difference afterwards.
This seemingly supports the idea that receiving major awards may actually hurt productivity. An economist would likely view this as a consequence of the wealth effect — as a result of the prestige and job security (wealth) the Fields medal provides, recipients are more likely to choose leisure activities (i.e., non-research activities) over work.
What was the purpose of the award?
If one believes that such a drop-off occurs as a result of the award, then it is natural to wonder if awards are actually damaging to scientific discovery? So, it’s worth thinking about what the purpose of awards is in the first place…
I know that some people have negative feelings about awards, but I tend to think they are valuable — they serve both as well-deserved pats on the back, and as motivational tools. In the case of the Fields medal, we actually know what the stated purpose of the award is: to give recognition and support to younger mathematical researchers who have made contributions major contributions . This clearly happens. But, at the same time, it was also intended to be an encouragement for further achievement on the part of the recipients . And, the plot above questions whether it has this impact…
Of course, there are also other explanations for the drop-off in publications besides a post-award slump. An optimistic view of this drop-off would be that it is a result of winners feeling secure enough to spend their time on the “big” problems, ones that have remained unsolved for a long time, or maybe it is a result of their increased security allowing them to be more risky and, for example, branch outside of their specializations with attempts to bridge fields.
It turns out that Borjas and Doran’s analysis supports this idea. Here’s the relevant plot showing the likelihood of “cognitive mobility,” which basically corresponds to the likelihood of moving outside their pre-award specialization.
It shows that exactly as the drop-off in publication rate happens, the likelihood of mobility starts to separate for medalists versus contenders. To me, this seems like an extremely positive consequence, if one buys into the story above. Providing the stars of a field the security to make risky, interdisciplinary research endeavors is a wonderful outcome.
All of the discussion above ignores one other possible positive aspect of awards too — the impact of striving to win them. Placing a concrete goal and standard for excellence creates has a huge psychological impact on performance (tenure is an extreme example of this). If one buys into this view, then it’s possible that the publication rate pre-award has been skewed dramatically by the existence of the award. It would be interesting to try to quantify the impact of this effect empirically, perhaps using data from different fields…
The optimal timing of awards?
Given the positive and negative consequences of awards, it’s interesting to think of “optimally” designing the awards for a field. Should fields have zero, one, or more “big” awards? For me, the data above provides evidence that a sort of two-pronged approach to awards is desireable: an award for junior researchers that can provide security to allow the best in a field to be ambitious and risky with their research, and an award for senior researchers that recognizes career long excellence and can help minimize the drop-off effects from the first award. Interestingly, this two-pronged approach seems to be cropping up in a lot of ACM SIGs recently — where there is some form of a “Rising Star” award for junior researchers and then another “Achievement Award” for senior researchers. Sigmetrics is one such example…it will be interesting to see the effect of this.
 McKinnon Riehm, Elaine; Hoffman, Frances (2011). Turbulent Times in Mathematics: The Life of J.C. Fields and the History of the Fields Medal. Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society. ISBN 0-8218-6914-0