Winning a Nobel Prize can be a life-changing event. The winners are thrust onto a world stage, and for many scientists the recognition represents the pinnacle of their careers.
But what is the effect of winning such a high-profile prize on science?
John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist at Stanford University, wants to find out. Awards like the Nobel Prize are “a major reputational tool,” he said, but he questions “whether they really help scientists become more productive and more impactful.”
In August, a team of researchers led by Dr. Ioannidis published a study in the journal Royal Society Open Science that attempted to quantify whether major awards push science forward. Using publication and citation patterns for scientists who won a Nobel Prize or a MacArthur Fellowship — the so-called genius grant — the team analyzed how post-award productivity is influenced by age and career stage. Overall, it found that laureates of either prize had similar or decreased impact in their field.
“These awards do not seem to enhance the productivity of the scientists,” Dr. Ioannidis said. “If anything, it seems to have the opposite effect.”
The researchers’ study adds to a body of work that aims to demystify the ways in which awards shape how science is done, though scholars have different opinions on what factors matter the most.
Since 1901, the Nobel Foundation has awarded prizes for groundbreaking achievements in physics, medicine and chemistry (in addition to prizes for peace, literature and, since 1969, economic research). The MacArthur Fellowship was founded in 1981, and unlike the Nobel Prizes, is granted as an investment into an individual’s potential.
Dr. Ioannidis’s team studied winners of both prizes to account for how age affects scientific productivity. On average, Nobel Prize winners are more likely to be older and further along in their careers compared with MacArthur fellows.
For the study, the team selected a sample of 72 Nobel laureates and 119 MacArthur fellows from this century and compared publication and citation counts of each awardee three years before they received the prize with after the recognition. Publications gave insight into how much new work a scholar was producing, whereas citations quantified the impact that work had in the field, Dr. Ioannidis said.
His team found that Nobel winners published about the same number of papers after receiving the award, but that post-award work had far fewer citations than pre-award work. MacArthur fellows, on the other hand, published slightly more, but their citations remained about the same. The rate of citations per paper for both Nobel laureates and MacArthur fellows decreased after winning.
When analyzing direct trends in age, the team found that laureates of either award who were 42 or older had declining citations and publication counts after their win. Recipients who were 41 or younger published more and were cited more, which the researchers said suggested that age played a role in the scientific productivity of awardees.
But Harriet Zuckerman, a sociologist at Columbia University who has spent her career tracking the lives and work of Nobel laureates, said that it was difficult to distill productivity into such simple metrics. The difficulty increases when generalizing across different fields of science, which have varying standards for publishing or citing work. In some fields, for example, senior scientists may not include themselves as authors to give early-career scientists a chance to shine.
Though Dr. Zuckerman does not necessarily equate this to productivity, she has also studied how the publication and citation patterns of Nobel winners fluctuated with age, career stage and other factors. She found that experience with fame caused the biggest shift — something that Nobel winners deal with in a way in which MacArthur fellows may not.
“They are treated by others, both within their fields and outside science, often as celebrities, as people whose opinions count on everything,” she said. “It’s very distracting.”
Andrea Ghez, a University of California, Los Angeles, astrophysicist, agreed that the difference between becoming a MacArthur fellow, which she did in 2008 at 43, and a Nobel physics laureate, which she did in 2020 at 55, is stark. “There’s a huge responsibility that comes with a Nobel in terms of really being identified as a leader in the world,” she said. For Dr. Ghez, that includes being a positive representation for women and defending the importance of science — two impacts that are not recorded in papers or citations.
Another reason Nobel laureates may see a drop in productivity is that they feel they have peaked in one research area and want to try something new. “It’s called pivot penalty,” said Dashun Wang, a researcher at Northwestern University who analyzes scientific inquiry and who was not involved in the study.
Dr. Wang found that this led to a temporary dip in publication rate, but that this bounces back after about three years. He has argued for seeing this as a positive.
“It means these people want to continue to push the frontier,” he added.
When it comes to Nobel Prizes specifically, the award gives you the confidence and clout to pursue bigger, more ambitious ideas, according to Dr. Ghez. “Transformative work is well known for not being well measured by citations,” she said.
Dr. Ioannidis acknowledges the limitations of boiling down productivity to papers and citations, because they tell only one part of the story. “There are many other things that matter in the footprint of science and society,” he said.
But until there is data to quantify those benefits, Dr. Ioannidis still finds value in trying to assess the effects of the awards — and in urging the community to think deeply about how to achieve more rigorous, impactful work. “Science is the best thing that can happen to humans,” Dr. Ioannidis said. But how to best exploit its benefits, he added, is a scientific question in itself.