This morning, in Sorbonne, I attended the opening ceremony for the 26th promotion of l’Institut Universitaire de France (IUF), as I had the incredible chance of being nominated a senior member of this French virtual institute this Spring and for the incoming five academic years. (I had been nominated once already, from 2010 to 2015.) This institute is virtual in that its members remain in their home university, with a comfortable grant that buys teaching off and provides research support. This morning ceremony was mostly attended by the new members and the main event was a talk by Jules Hoffmann, Medicine Nobel Prize in 2011, who gave a very engaging talk in immunity and his work on the characterisation of immunity, first on flies and then on humans. The setting was the Grand Ampithéâtre of the historical Sorbonne building, only used now for academic ceremonies such as this one. (And also rented for private events…)
Archive for Nobel Prize
Just received an email from the IMS that Sir David Cox (Nuffield College, Oxford) has been awarded the International Prize in Statistics. As discussed earlier on the ‘Og, this prize is intended to act as the equivalent of a Nobel prize for statistics. While I still have reservations about the concept. I have none whatsoever about the nomination as David would have been my suggestion from the start. Congratulations to him for the Prize and more significantly for his massive contributions to statistics, with foundational, methodological and societal impacts! [As Peter Diggle, President of the Royal Statistical Society just pointed out, it is quite fitting that it happens on European Statistics day!]
I was (exceptionally) working in (and for) my garden when my daughter shouted down from her window that John Nash had just died. I thus completed my tree trimming and went to check about this sad item of news. What I read made the news even sadder as he and his wife had died in a taxi crash in New Jersey, apparently for not wearing seat-belts, a strategy you would think far from minimax… Since Nash was in Norway a few days earlier to receive the 2015 Abel Prize, it may even be that the couple was on its way home back from the airport. A senseless death for a Beautiful Mind.
On December 4-5, Université Paris-Dauphine will host the 6th French Econometric Conference, which celebrates Christian Gouriéroux and his contributions to econometrics. (Christian was my statistics professor during my graduate years at ENSAE and then Head of CREST when I joined this research unit, first as a PhD student and later as Head of the statistics group. And he has always been a tremendous support for me.)
Not only is the program quite impressive, with co-authors of Christian Gouriéroux and a few Nobel laureates (if not the latest, Jean Tirole, who taught economics at ENSAE when I was a student there), but registration is free. I will most definitely attend the talks, as I am in Paris-Dauphine at this time of year (the week before NIPS). In particular, looking forward to Gallant’s views on Bayesian 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.
While Nobel prizes never get close to mathematics, it sometimes happens they border statistics. It was the case two years ago with Chris Sims—soon to speak at Bayes 250 in Duke— winning the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (often shortened into the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences). This year was also a borderline year since an econometrician, Lars Peter Hansen, got a third of the prize… Hansen is the current co-editor of Econometrica and one of the main contributors to the theory of the generalised method of moments. (Which can be re-interpreted as a precursor to ABC!) He has most of his papers in Econometrica, Journal of Econometrics, and other econom’ics journals, but also has a 2009 paper in the Annals of Statistics. In addition, even though the case is even more borderline, the fact that simulation techniques are at the core of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry is also a good thing for our field (although I did not see much mentions made of statistics in the reports I read, apart from their methods making “good predictions”…)