Economics as a scientific field

Are there institutionalized pathways to the Nobel Prize in economics?

Philipp Korom

Academic excellence and “power through ideas”

Throughout most of the 19th century, the academy had been a parochial world subordinated to the will of locally established churches and politicians. Professors did not aim to produce new knowledge but rather to bring forth men who were sociable and cultivated (McClelland, 1980). What Jencks and Riesman (1968) termed an “academic revolution” — by which they meant the triumph of professors and their norms of meritocracy over boards of trustees composed of non-academics and special interest groups — is essentially a recent development. Publications and recognition from those who are qualified to judge slowly emerged as the prime indicator of scholarly achievement in a growing type of academic institution, the “research university” (Menand et al., 2017), in which the professionalization of scholars takes place.2

Today all academic disciplines, including economics, have an elaborate system of awards to recognize academic excellence, mostly with a single tie plus ultra award. The best-known awards are the Field Medal in mathematics and the Nobel Prize. Because the Nobel Prize is regarded by laypeople and scientists alike as the acme of scientific achievement, the award gives economists the authority to speak on behalf of science (Lebaron, 2006). However, Laureates themselves have criticized the special standing of the Nobel Prize. Friedrich Hayek, the 1974 Nobel Laureate in economics, feared that the prize could create an aura of hard science certainty around the decidedly social science of economics.3 Milton Friedman, the 1976 Nobel Laureate, was skeptical about the assumed universality of Laureates’elite expertise: “I myself have been asked my opinion on everything from a cure for the common cold to the market value of a letter signed by John F. Kennedy.”4

Outside the field of economics, fervent critiques of the prize have charged that the Nobel Prize system does not recognize the unity of the social sciences in theory and in application (Horowitz, 1983). Given research that consistently demonstrates that economists are less likely to contribute to the public good, others argue that the prize stands in direct contradiction to the founders will, which stipulated that awards should be given to those who have “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” (Rothstein, 2015).

However, despite all these reservations, the Nobel Prize in economics has lost neither its extraordinary visibility nor its prestige. The prize continuously gives discursive power to Nobel Laureates to effectively advance ideas in academics, politics, economics and the media (Maesse, 2015). To give just a few illustrations of the Laureates’ impact on the circulation of powerful ideas: Gary S. Becker popularized the notion of “human capital”; Chile implemented an economic recovery plan based on Milton Friedmans policy recommendations in the 1970s; Daniel Kahneman (along with Amos Tversky) changed the way the world thinks about economics, upending the notion that human beings are rational decision-makers; Paul Krugman has become one of the most influential public intellectuals in the social sciences, reaching a wide audience through his columns in the New York Times.

The Nobel Prize does not guarantee lasting esteem by fellow scientists, as “the scientific community is acutely sensitive to signs of its members being ‘over the hill’” (Zuckerman, 1977, pp. 238-239). With the emphasis on moving ahead, the prestige of Laureates may turn out to be short-lived as their research is superseded by newer contributions. Yet there seems to be little ebb and flow regarding the scientific legitimacy of Nobel Laureates as public intellectuals. This might also be one of many reasons why key ideas of Laureates easily turn into “public ideas” (Hallett, Stapleton, & Sander, 2019) circulating in the news and being used by different mediators (e.g. journalists) for making sense of current events. Examples of such “public ideas” are nudging (R. Thaler), the prize of inequality (J. Stiglitz), the human development index (A. Sen), economic freedom (M. Friedman), and the tragedy of the commons (E. Ostrom).

Given this power of Nobel Laureates in economics to influence the public (“power through ideas,” c.f. Carstensen 8c Schmidt, 2016), it appears worthwhile to investigate in depth who these scholars actually are. Previous research has categorized Laureates according to their theoretical approaches (Boettke, Fink, & Smith, 2012; Offer & Soderberg, 2016, p. 150fl), identified predictors of the Nobel Prize winners in economics (Chan & Torgler, 2012), analyzed citation trajectories (Bjork, Offer, & Soderberg, 2014), reconstructed intellectual trajectories through oral history interviews (e.g. Samuelson & Barnett, 2007), or analyzed the life cycle of scholarly creativity (Weinberg & Galen- son, 2019). What makes this chapter’s contribution distinct is its focus on the nexus between academic institutions5 and (individual) pathways to achieving the highest level of eminence.

My main argument is that publications in the most prestigious journals, socialization in the top departments of the discipline, and receiving the Nobel Prize produce a circle of interdependencies: Publications in top journals such as the American Economic Review are a precondition for tenure at top departments such as Harvard University (Heckman 8c Moktan, 2018). Tenure at prestigious departments then set economists on a trajectory to reach the apex of eminence represented by the Nobel Prize. Finally, Laureates may succeed in further publishing in leading journals, partly because of their reputation. The postulated

Pathways to the Nobel Prize in economics?


Circle of interdependencies

Figure 12.1 Circle of interdependencies

nexus, I will argue, holds true for most but not all cases. The general conclusion is that pathways to eminence in economics are institutionalized and limited.

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