09 February 2011

Are prizes good for science?

Last Friday’s post on Nobel prizes got a lot of attention. This may be because I promoted the post with a provocative title on Twitter: “Why Nobel prizes are the enemy of science.” (Hey, at one point I was thinking of using the title, “Why the Nobel prizes are evil.” I scaled back.)

Given the argument that Nobel prizes and other “status symbols” have bad effects, it was fair comment to point out that here on this very blog, I promote my own successes. I’m not shy about pointing out that I’ve had posts in Open Lab, or putting links to some of my new papers. This made me think more about awards, and whether they have good effects.

Do you do science to win awards?

The more people answer that question, “Yes,” the bigger the problem of awards becomes.

It’s nice to get an award. Having hard work and achievement recognized is undeniably pleasant. But is that why you do what you do? For most people, according to Dan Pink, the big three reasons people are fulfilled by doing something is autonomy, mastery, and purpose. The further you get away from those and towards external incentives (like awards, money, and other secondary reinforcers), the outcomes, Pink argues, typically get worse, not better.

That is, while I’m proud that I’ve had posts in Open Lab, I don’t blog to get something in Open Lab.

You might also ask why I picked on the Nobel prizes in particular. There are plenty of prizes, so if it wasn’t the Nobel, wouldn’t it just be something else? Probably. But as of right now, the Nobels aren’t a prize. They’re the prize. And for whatever strange set of reasons, that main event has gained more and bigger sideshows (some welcome, some not) than any other award.

I also mentioned money in the post. Grants are different than award in some ways. To get science done, you need money in most cases. You need a lot of money in some cases. But I’ve heard too many stories about how at some institutions, scientific worth is evaluated by the number of dollars brought in. This makes about as much sense as arguing that X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a better movie than the latest Star Trek because it had a bigger opening weekend at the box office. (Yes, I overheard someone make that argument.) Money in science should always be a way to reach the goal, not be the goal itself.

Publications also have this double edged element to them: they should be a means, but for many people, they become an end unto themselves.

All of these can become a problem when people not only aspire to them, but come to think they deserve them. Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman said in a recent interview that one of the problems with the prizes was that some people didn’t get prizes who “deserved” them. You hear arguments about this getting their “piece of the pie” in regards to grants (“Old has-been PIs are hogging too much of the money!” “Young PIs with no experience can’t judge the quality of my science!”) I find figuring out what people “deserve” to be complicated and time consuming. But I do know that a sense of entitlement is rarely appealing.

It’s a matter of means, ends, and side effects. To me, the end goal of science should be good evidence, strong predictions, and less ignorance about the world. Money is a means to the end. Awards are a side effect.

I’m still thinking on this, but I hope I’ve managed to get a little more nuance than in my previous post.

Photo by AlaskaTeacher on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.


tshilson said...

There will always be some people that do science for publicity, but they should be a few at the end of the bell curve. The BIG prizes do a lot to publicize science to the general public as well. Makre sure you figure that into the equation.

sweetwater Tom

Zen Faulkes said...

Prizes advertise science, true, but how good a job do they really do? I'll pick on the Nobels again. If you tell a non-scientist that someone is a Nobel prize winner, what's the likelihood that someone in the general public has any understanding of the science that person has done?

The Nobel prizes arguably promote the Nobel prizes better than they promote science.