September 25, 2013

Study: Awards may stifle future achievements, at least in math

Each year hundreds of prizes are awarded across all scientific disciplines. Most recognize lifetime achievement.  But a number of the most prestigious awards in science and mathematics are given to accomplished younger scientists to inspire them to even greater accomplishments.

But do these prizes actually result in more brilliant work from the world’s best and brightest?

Apparently not, at least in mathematics.  In fact, two economists found that winning the Fields Medal, generally regarded as the Nobel Prize of mathematics, seems to have the opposite effect. When compared with other elite mathematicians, medal winners were significantly less productive in terms of the number of scholarly articles they published and the overall quality of those papers. They also were more likely to take time-consuming forays into other academic areas and mentored fewer doctoral students than their peers

“Every four years, the greatest mathematicians in the world gather to select new medalists and to remind them that the Fields Medal is meant to encourage their future achievement,” wrote economists George J. Borjas of Harvard and Kirk B. Doran of Notre Dame. “In fact, the medal reduces the rate of publication and the likelihood that its winners produce great achievements in pure mathematics.”

Instead, Fields winners often step off the path that led them to honors.  “The medalists ‘play the field,’ studying unfamiliar topics at the expense of writing papers,” the researchers wrote in a newly released National Bureau of Economics working paper.  “The increased opportunities provided by the Fields Medal, in fact, discouraged the recipients from continuing to produce the pure mathematics that the medal was awarded for.”

Borjas and Doran studied the scholarly production of the 52 men who have won the Fields Medal since 1936 (to date, no women have won).  The prize is awarded by the International Mathematical Union to two to four mathematicians under the age of 40. It rewards accomplishment but also is specifically designed to be “encouragement for future achievement on the part of the recipients,” wrote Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields, who created the prize.

To study the impact of the Fields Medal, these researchers analyzed data contained in the MathSciNet archives. This database categorizes by specialty and year every paper by every mathematician published since 1939.  The database also contains the number of times each paper was cited by other scholars, a measure of its importance to the field.

They also sought “to determine what the post-medal career path of Fields medalists would have looked like they not been awarded the medal.”  They did this by sifting through the lists of young winners of other prestigious math prizes who had not been awarded the Fields Medal—a list of worthy “contenders” that served as a control group.

Before they won the prize, Fields medalists had similar publication rates compared with non-medalists.  But after receiving the award, Fields recipients’ annual production of scholarly papers declined by 24% and these papers were cited less frequently by other mathematicians.

About half the decline in production was due to the fact that winners were spending more time doing research in unfamiliar areas outside their specialties, Borjas and Duran found.  Awardees strayed outside their “comfort zone”—the area where they did their prize-winning research—only about 5 percent of the time before they won the prize but 25% thereafter.  In contrast, non-winners strayed from their specialties about 5% of the time before winning their accolades but 10% afterwards.

“In short, the data reveal that the awarding of the Fields Medal is associated with a strong increase in the likelihood that a mathematician tries out fields that are very distant from the fields that established his reputation,” they wrote.

But why? One answer may be what these economists call the “wealth effect.”  While the medal comes with only a $15,000 cash prize, winners “are likely to see a substantial expansion in their opportunity set, in terms of high-quality job offers, additional research funding, and many other career opportunities,” Borjas and Doran suggested.

In turn, the winners may “increase the consumption of leisure….relative to that of the contenders,” these researchers noted.  “We should not be surprised if…the ‘wealth of the prize’ does indeed slow the Fields medalists down.”

Category: Social Studies

Topics: Science and Innovation

  1. Photo of Rich Morin

    is a senior editor focusing on social and demographic trends at Pew Research Center.