Nobel prize in statistics???

Xiao-Li Meng asked this question in his latest XL column, to which Andrew replied faster than I. And in the same mood as mine. I had taken part to a recent discussion on this topic within the IMS Council, namely whether or not the IMS should associate with other organisations like ASA towards funding and supporting this potential prize. My initial reaction was one of surprise that we could consider mimicking/hijacking the Nobel for our field. First, I dislike the whole spirit of most prizes, from the personalisation to the media frenzy and distortion, to the notion that we could rank discoveries and research careers within a whole field. And separate what is clearly due to a single individual from what is due to a team of researchers.

Being clueless about those fields, I will not get into a discussion of who should have gotten a Nobel Prize in medicine, physics, or chemistry. And who should not have. But there are certainly many worthy competitors to the actual winners. And this is not the point: I do not see how any of this fights the downfall of scientific students in most of the Western World. That is, how a teenager can get more enticed to undertake maths or physics studies because she saw a couple old guys wearing weird clothes getting a medal and a check in Sweden. I have no actual data, but could Xiao-Li give me a quantitative assessment of the fact that Nobel Prizes “attract future talent”? Chemistry departments keep closing for lack of a sufficient number of students, (pure) maths and physics departments threatened with the same fate… Even the Fields Medal, which has at least the appeal of being delivered to younger researchers, does not seem to fit Xiao-Li’s argument. (To take a specific example: The recent Fields medallist Cédric Villani is a great communicator and took advantage of his medal to promote maths throughout France, in conferences, the medias, and by launching all kinds of initiative. I still remain sceptical about the overall impact on recruiting young blood in maths programs [again with no data to back up my feeling).) I will even less mention Nobel prizes for literature and peace, as there clearly is a political agenda in the nomination. (And selecting Sartre for the Nobel prize for literature definitely discredited it. At least for me.)

“…the media and public have given much more attention to the Fields Medal than to the COPSS Award, even though the former has hardly been about direct or even indirect impact on everyday life.” XL

Well, I do not see this other point of Xiao-Li’s. Nobel prizes are not prestigious for their impact on society, as most people do not understand at all what the rewarded research (career) is about. The most extreme example is the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel: On the one hand, Xiao-Li is right in pointing out that this is a very successful post-Alfred creation of a “Nobel Prize”. On the other hand, the fact that some years see two competing theories simultaneously win leads me to consider that this prize gives priority to theoretical construct above any impact on the World’s economy. Obviously, this statement is a bit of shooting our field in the foot since the only statisticians who got a Nobel Prize are econometricians and game-theorists! Nonetheless, it also shows that the happy few statisticians who entered the Nobel Olympus did not bring a bonus to the field… I am thus  remaining my usual pessimistic self on the impact of a whatever-company Prize in Statistical Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

Another remark is the opposition between the COPSS Award, which remains completely ignored by the media (despite a wealth of great nominees with various domains of achievements) and the Fields Medal (which is not ignored). This has been a curse of Statistics that has been discussed at large, namely the difficulty to separate what is math and what is outside math within the field. The Fields Medal is clearly very unlikely to nominate a statistician, even a highly theoretical statistician, as there will always be “sexier” maths results, i.e. corpora of work that will be seen as higher maths than, say, the invention of the Lasso or the creation of generalized linear models. So there is no hope to reach for an alternative Fields Medal with the same shine. Just like the Nobel Prize.

Other issues I could have mentioned, but for the length of the current rant, are the creation of rewards for solving a specific problem (as some found in Machine Learning), for involving multidisciplinary and multicountry research teams, and for reaching new orders of magnitude in processing large data problems.

6 Responses to “Nobel prize in statistics???”

  1. […] P.S. Some thoughts from Christian Robert here. […]

  2. which of the two behaviors below is the more likely outcome of a Nobel Prize in Statistics:

    “I wasn’t going to finish my innovative statistics research which will cure cancer, but now that there’s a Nobel Prize in Statistics, I will get it done”

    or

    “I wasn’t going to finish my worthless but gimmicky and flashy statistics research, but now that there’s a Nobel Prize in Statistics, I will get it done”

  3. Alan J. Izenman Says:

    I don’t understand why some statisticians are against awarding prestige prizes to their best and brightest.

    As a profession, we do not sufficiently honor those who make significant advances to our discipline. We have long been woefully deficient in promoting the discipline of Statistics. The most prestigious prize in Statistics is the COPSS award, and that is only for $1,500. That’s precisely the reason why no-one pays any attention to the COPSS award. If the Statistics profession itself doesn’t deem the COPSS award to be worth anything, then why should anyone else?

    I have been advocating a major prize for Statistics for a couple of decades and now it looks as if it may finally happen.

    What have been the major arguments against a major ($1 million) Statistics prize? Usually, it is that the money would be better spent spreading it around the statistics community, that no-one deserves such a large amount of money and the notoriety that goes with it. Such an argument is nonsense. We have many brilliant statisticians who have contributed significantly to the promotion of our discipline, and to the formulation and acceptance of the scientific method. We have statisticians who have accepted $1 million non-statistical prizes for their pathbreaking work in Statistics. Why do we not honor such researchers as our best and brightest? Why on Earth do we leave it to others to recognize our stars?

    Another big question that is often raised is who will fund such an award? This is easy to answer (at least in principle).

    Banks, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, government agencies, universities, scientists of all stripes, including social, physical, and natural scientists, the business community, computational scientists, politicians and political polling companies, and many others: they all owe us big time. It’s now time to call in these chits and have them create a major award for Statistics (or Statistical Science).

    The real question is who will get to name it.

    ASA is currently committed to creating such an international Statistics prize. This is great! But please don’t question why we need such an award. The necessity is obvious.

    • Thanks for your points. As you may guess from my post, I am very much disagreeing with them! I cannot understand why and how an indecently large sum of money can promote a profession and attract young researchers.

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