Nobel Prize: Should We Automate the Winners Selection Process?

Today, the Nobel Prize winners in the field of medicine were announced. All three winners are esteemed scientists who have discovered “therapies that have revolutionized the treatment of some of the most devastating parasitic diseases”, according to the Nobel committee. This is doubtlessly true: two of the winners’ discoveries have led to the development of a drug that has nearly brought an end to river blindness; the third scientist developed a drug that has reduced mortality from malaria by 30 percent in children, and saves over 100,000 lives each year.

I could go on about the myriad of ways in which medicine is improving the human condition worldwide, or about how we’re eradicating some diseases that have inflicted the human race since times unknown. I won’t do that. The progress of medicine is self-evident, and in any case is a matter for a longer blog post. Instead, let us focus on a different venture: the attempt to forecast the Nobel Prize winners.

The Citation Laureates

Every year since 2002, the Thomson Reuters media and information corporation makes a shot at forecasting the Nobel laureates. To that end, they analyze the most highly cited research papers in every field, and the authors behind them. One’s prestige as a scientist largely comes from high citation rate – i.e. the number of times people have referred to your work when conducting their own research. It’s therefore clear why this single simple parameter, so easily quantified, could serve as a good base for forecasting the annual Nobel winners.

So far, it looks like Thomson Reuters have done quite well with their forecasts. In every year except 2004, they have successfully identified at least one Nobel Prize winner in all the scientific fields: Physiology or Medicine, Physics, Chemistry and Economics. Overall, Thomson Reuters has “correctly forecast 21 of 52 science Nobel Prizes awarded over the last 13 years”.

It is fascinating for me that by working with tools for the analysis of big data, one could reach such a high rate of success in forecasting the decisions made by the Nobel committees. But here’s the deeper issue, in my opinion: Thomson Reuters clearly intends only to forecast the Nobel winners – but is it possible that their selection is more accurate than that of the Nobel committee?

The Limits of Committees

How is the Nobel Prize decided? Every year, thousands of distinguished professors from around the world are asked to nominate colleagues who deserve the prize. Each committee for the scientific prizes ends up with 250-350 nominees, whom they then screen and analyze in order to come up with only a few recommendations that will be presented to the 615 members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences – and they will vote for the final winners.

Note that the rate-limiting step in the process is contained in the hands of the committee members. The number of members changes between each committee, but generally ranges between 6 and 8 members in each committee. And as anyone who has ever taken part of any committee discussion knows, there are usually only two or three people who really influence and shape the debate. In other words, if you want to have a real chance at winning the Nobel Prize in your field, you had best develop your connections with the most influential members of the appropriate committee.

Please note that I’m not accusing the Nobel committees of fraud or nepotism. However, we know that even the best and most reliable experts in the world are subject to human biases – sometimes without even realizing that. The human mind, after all, is a strangely convoluted place, with most of the decision making process being handled subconsciously. Individual decision makers are therefore biased by nature, as are small committees. The Nobel Laureates selection process, therefore, is biased – which I guess we all know anyway – and even worse, it remains under wraps, and the actual discussions taking place are not shared by the public for criticism.

Examples for (alleged) bias can be found easily (heck, there’s an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the subject). Henry Eyring allegedly failed to receive the Nobel Prize because of his Mormon faith; Paul Krugman received the prize because of (again, allegedly) left-leaning bias of the committee; and when the scientist behind HPV discovery was selected to receive the prize, an anticorruption investigation followed soon after since two senior figures on the committee had strong links with a pharmaceutical company dealing with HPV vaccines.

The Wisdom of Data

Now consider the core of the Thomson Reuters process. The company’s analysts go over all the papers and citations in an automated fashion, conducted by algorithms that they define. The algorithms are only biased if they’re created that way – which means that the algorithms and the entire process will need to be fully transparent. The algorithms can cut down the list of potential candidates into a mere dozen or so – and then allow the Royal Swedish Academy do the rest of the work and vote for the top ones.

Is this process necessarily better than the committee? Obviously, many flaws still abound. The automated process could put more emphasis on charismatic ‘rock stars’ of the scientific world, for example, and neglect the more down-to-earth scientists. Or it could focus on those scientists who are incredibly well-connected and who have many collaborations, while leaving aside those scientists who only made one big impact in their field. However, proper programming of the algorithms – and accurately defining the parameters and factors behind the selection process – should take care of these issues.

Does this process, in which an automated algorithm picks a human winner, seems weird to you? It shouldn’t, because it’s happening on the World Wide Web every second. Each time you’re doing a Google search, the computer goes over millions of possible results and only shows you the ‘winners’ at the top, according to factors that include their links to each other (i.e. number of citations), the reputation of the site, and other parameters. Google has brought this selection process down to a form of art – and an accurate science.

Why not do that to the Nobel Prize as well?




Your Nobel Forecast

Over the next week, the recipients of the Nobel Prize will be announced one after the other. Would you like to impress your friends by forecasting the recipients? Here’s an infographic made by Thomson Reuters and detailing their forecasts for 2015. Good luck to everyone in it!

Listing of the top forecasts made by Thomson Reuters for each scientific Nobel Prize category in 2015. Originally from Thomson Reuters.
Listing of the top forecasts made by Thomson Reuters for each scientific Nobel Prize category in 2015.
Originally from Thomson Reuters.
Credit: the Nobel Prize medal's image at the top of the post was taken by Adam Baker on Flickr.

Sputnik Day: Could We have a New Space Race?

Exactly fifty-eight years ago, the Soviet Union rocked history with the successful launch of Sputnik 1 – the first time for humans to contribute a satellite to Planet Earth. While Sputnik was a pretty small satellite – only 58 cm in diameter – its launch triggered the Space Race, in which U.S.A and the Soviet Union tried to impress the world with their innovations, rockets and astronauts. The Space Race came to exciting culmination with the Moon landing on 1969, with a gradual decline ever since.

Today, we are swamped with 3,000 satellites orbiting the Earth. Without these satellites, our lives would not have been as easy as they are now. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, satellites help us forecast the weather, enable us to navigate with GPS, send television signals straight to households, and many other things. In short, they’re incredibly useful, and it’s clear that we’re now reaping the investment made during the Space Race – even though at that time, the two superpowers mainly fought over the prestige of being the first, the best and the brightest.

So today, the day in which Sputnik 1 was launched, it’s interesting to me to think about a hypothetical scenario in which another technological breakthrough occurs: a real game-changer which forces all the world’s citizens to rethink their old beliefs, and drags all the superpowers into another race. What would that scenario look like?

First, it’s clear that the world is a fair bit more cynical today than it was during the Cold War. There are no longer two market and national philosophies at war today. Capitalism has clearly won the game, at least for now. While radical religion could be presented as a rival to democracy, the only place right now where the truly radical, unapologetic expressions of religion can be found are in the Islamic State. And while ISIS has proliferated in an unbelievably rapid pace, it lacks the capacity to make new scientific and technological discoveries. And let’s say gently that they’re not really impressing the world with their contributions to the humanities or the arts.

Since the world is largely uninterested in prestige anymore, we need a technological breakthrough whose impact and consequences would be clear from the outset. What breakthrough might that be?

Free Resources from Space

There are many answers to that question, like discovering a source of free energy (possibly cold nuclear fusion), or finding a way to play with the law of gravity and change the weight of buildings and even human beings (imagine that!). However, scientific breakthroughs are often made on the shoulders of giants – i.e. they rely on plenty of previous research and past successes – and the current scientific literature does not provide us any reassurance that anyone has even gotten close to figuring out these two challenges.

So let’s opt for a more likely scenario, and imagine that sometime in the next ten years, a private firm will succeed in mining an asteroid in deep space, and will bring back to orbit sacks full of gold and platinum. We could definitely imagine this scenario becoming reality, since there are currently at least two companies (Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries) competing between themselves to be the first to mine asteroids and bring back their riches to Earth.

Were such a venture to succeed, it would have far-reaching consequences for the future of the Earth. At the moment, the developed world relies on many precious materials that can be found mostly in developing nations. According to data from Fast Company, these materials include fluorspar (CaF2, used for high-performance optics) from Mexico, cobalt and tantalum from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, niobium (Nb, used in microcapacitors and pacemakers) from Brazil, and an estimated $1 trillion in mineral deposits in Afghanistan. These countries would essentially lose a significant part of their income, if precious materials were to be imported from space.

This chart by Visual Capitalist shows how long the resources on Earth will suffice. Please note the image here is about half of the full chart, which can be found in Venture Capitalist's site.
This chart by Visual Capitalist shows how long the resources on Earth will suffice.
Please note the image here is about half of the full chart, which can be found in Venture Capitalist’s site.

The developed and powerful nations would face other difficulties. Russia, the U.S.A., China, India, Japan and the European Union have all the means necessary to start space mining themselves, and they will strive to do so as soon as possible, so that each of them can be the first to get to the ‘easiest to pick’ asteroids – the ones whose trajectories bring them closest to Earth, and contain the largest concentrations of precious metals. At the same time, they will go into overdrive developing anti-spacecraft weapons, so that they can protect their investment in space. After all, nobody wants to drag an asteroid all the way to Earth, just to have a competing nation take control over it.

A space mining race, then, is one likely result of this scenario. An alternative, though, might be found in collaboration. Deep space has plenty of asteroids waiting for mankind to mine them, and 13,000 of those asteroids have orbits that bring them close to Earth. A single platinum-rich asteroid contains 174 times the yearly world output of platinum. Perhaps pooling together humanity’s resources, then, and coordinating every nation’s efforts, would be the best way to move forward and to share the abundant wealth to come.


I have no idea which way the world will turn to, but one thing is clear: this scenario forces everyone to rethink their positions regarding space, and to take action of one sort or the other. No nation would be able to afford itself to stay out of the new space race, or at least out of the debate for reallocation of resources that would come for it. There shall be much gnashing of teeth and a lot of anxiety on behalf of world leaders, but in the long term this development would prove to be one of the greatest boons even bestowed on humanity, leading to an era of abundance in precious metals and materials.

Interestingly, we are already starting to consider these scenarios seriously. In a recent workshop conducted by Dr. Deganit Paikowsky and yours truly, the full impact of a similar scenario was analyzed by students who role-played the different nations of the Earth. The results of the workshop will be publicized soon, but until they do, I would love receiving feedback from you: how do you think the nations would react to this scenario? Will we see a new space race, or a joint thrust forward? And which do you think will be the most efficient and successful way for humanity as a whole?

The answers to these questions could truly shape our future.