What happens to the productivity of doctors who win a Nobel Prize?

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These awards are intended to be the supreme recognition of an individual’s contribution to society as well as an encouragement to continue their work. What if the effect obtained was the opposite?

It is this week that the new Nobel Prize winners will be revealed. It began on Monday with the Nobel Prize in Medicine, followed by those in Physics (Tuesday), Chemistry (Wednesday), Literature (Thursday) and Peace (Friday). The exercise will conclude next Monday with the announcement of the “Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel”, more commonly known as the “Nobel Prize in Economics”.

As the question of the productivity of people and things is constantly raised, it was predictable that experts would one day ask it about the Nobel Prizes, or rather their effects on the winners. For this study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER, in English) unveiled in June, there were even six of them to look into the particular case of the Nobel Prize in Medicine and its impact on the productivity of its 1950 laureates. to 2010.

To do this, the team compared the number of scientific articles published before they received their prize and after, but also evaluated their influence on science (number of times these articles were subsequently taken up ) and originality (newness of the ideas put forward). As the Nobel is generally awarded to relatively old researchers and it would be normal if the productivity was no longer that of their youthful years, their production was also compared to that of the winners of another prestigious international medicine prize ( the Albert-Lasker Prize) of the same age as them.

Result: the productivity of our Nobel Prize winners has tended to decrease sharply, once the prize is in their pocket, both from the point of view of quantity and scope and originality. And this, both in relation to their own rate of production before their coronation and in relation to that of the winners of the other prestigious prize, but which is less known.

It is precisely that the Nobel Prizes often have the power to take obscure researchers known only by a handful of other laboratory rats like them and to transform them into international stars that everyone then wants to have as speakers, as a spokesperson for his movement or as guests at the table of other rich and famous people.

It seems that “once the winners have received the prize and the adulation, they waste away in vain sterility [et] “become pontificating chatterboxes, preaching to the world about ethics and futurology, politics and philosophy” rather than continuing to concentrate on their research, wrote, around twenty years ago, the “Nobel Prize winner in economics » Paul Samuelson, not without exaggerating a little.

The loss of productivity of the Nobel Prize winners is perhaps not only due to this diversion towards all kinds of new activities more or less linked to their field of expertise, note the authors of the NBER study. The fact of achieving supreme recognition perhaps also removes the constant pressure they had until then to defend the place and value of their research at every opportunity.

Since we are talking about the elite of the scientific elite, it is also possible that these individuals reach their full potential more quickly than others and, afterward, they may seem to be treading water.

What kind of productivity?

And then, there is sometimes something quite twisted in this way of measuring productivity in the field of research, physicist Peter Higgs told the British daily The Guardian in 2013 when he was on his way to collect his Nobel for having discovered a boson which now bears his name. He said it was difficult for him to imagine how he could have found the peace and quiet that were necessary for his discoveries if he had had to produce scientific articles and grant applications at the rate that Today we demand from researchers. “I don’t even think I could have gotten a job at a university. »

Should we still conclude that the Nobel Prizes paradoxically deprive us of part of the work of our most brilliant minds by wanting to reward them?

It must be remembered that these prizes are also a powerful tool for promoting and popularizing science among decision-makers, the public in general and potential successors in particular, underline the authors of the NBER study.

But perhaps, in fact, we could wait until scientists are a little further along in their careers before awarding them to them, said a winner this summer in an interview with the journal Scienceeven if the average age of winners is already continuing to increase and now stands at 68 years old.

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