26 May 2010

Changing the will

A new report from the National Bureau of Economic Research argues that science policy is breaking. Reasons? Science is being done by larger and larger teams of older and older people who know less and less. The Chronicle of Higher Education has more commentary on this report.

I may have more to write about some of these issues later, but one thing leaped out at me:

Institutions such as government grant agencies, the patent office, the science education system, and the Nobel Prize come under a unified focus in this paper. In all cases, the question is how these institutions can change.

The comment about the Nobel prize changing is kind of weird, because the answer is pretty obviously, “It can’t – at least not very much.”

The way the Nobel prize works was laid out in Alfred Nobel’s will. Nobel’s particular selection of areas to reward has struck many as odd, and has led to the creation of at least one full-blown urban legend. (See also here.)

Until someone is able to revive Alfred Nobel *, and get him to change his will **, we’re pretty much stuck with the prizes as they are now.

Reforming the Nobel prize is rather pointless, As the professionalization of science and the increase in the number of people working in science means that the Nobel prize just isn’t a real goal for the vast majority of workings scientists out there. We have much bigger problems. This constant obsession with the Nobel prizes is unhealthy.

* And if anyone could do that, they’d probably get the Nobel prize.

** And if you do change the will, Al, a prize for biology would make a lot of sense.

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