The effect of age on Nobel Prize attribution

By Athanasios Vamvakidis, Senior Economist, IMF.

(This article was published on Manifest n6)
The Nobel Prize was established in 1895 by the will of Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of

Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel

dynamite. Though Nobel wrote several wills during his lifetime, the last was written a little over a year before he died, and signed at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris on 27 November 1895. Wishing to atone for the evil done with dynamite, Nobel bequeathed 94% of his total assets, 31 million Swedish Kronors, to establish and endow the five Nobel Prizes. (As of 2008 that equates to 186 million US dollars.)

It was first awarded in Peace, Literature, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Physics in 1901. Although the committee has been seen by some to be politically motivated by handing prizes to dissident such as Lech Walesa, an aura of objectivity surrounds the committee when it comes to age.

But what if the contributions of a 30-year old and an 85-year old are recognized as Nobel-worthy at the same time, will the older candidate receive the award earlier in view of his/her lower life expectancy? The answer should be negative according to Alfred Nobel’s will, which calls for awarding the Prize to those who have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind, regardless of the candidate’s characteristics.

To answer this question, we looked at all Nobel Prizes based on data that span the entire history of the Nobel Prize (1901 to 2007). This 781 Prizes include: 189 in Medicine, 181 in Physics, 151 in Chemistry, 104 in Literature, 95 in Peace (excluding institutions), and 61 in Economics.

Furthermore, and despite public perceptions, not all Nobel winners were old. Physicists are, on average, the youngest recipients (54 years of age), followed by chemists (56), physicians (57), peace advocates (63), writers and poets (64), and economists (67). Almost 60 percent of Nobel recipients were between the ages of 45 and 65; 20 recipients were younger than 35; while 24 recipients were older than 80.

The youngest person ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize was William Lawrence Bragg, who, at the age of 25, shared the 1915 Nobel in Physics with his 53-year old father, Sir William Henry Bragg. The oldest person was Leonid Hurwicz, who was awarded the 2007 Prize in Economics at the age of 90.

In contrast to Alfred Nobel’s will, we find an age premium associated with older candidates for the Nobel Prize. Specifically, the results show that making the Nobel-worthy contribution a year later delays the Prize by about six months, while sharing the Nobel Prize reduces the age at which the candidate is awarded the Nobel by almost 2 years.

The results also suggest that the Nobel committee “rushed” the Prize to older candidates during the first decade of the Nobel. Similarly, a positive and highly significant time trend may reflect the expanding pool of candidates (and hence older candidates) as the population and the number of educated people rises, and life expectancy increases.

Networking seems to matter, with the Prize being “accelerated” by 7 months for each alive Laureate in the same institution (and field). Other factors such as gender and the country of the Nobel-worthy research do not have a noticeable impact.

The bottom line is that to increase your chance of receiving the Nobel Prize early: work in the science fields, make your Nobel-worthy contribution early in life, collaborate with older colleagues, work in an institution with many Laureates, and, more importantly, live as long as you can.

Athanasios Vamvakidis is a senior economist in the Regional Studies division of the European Department of the International Monetary Fund. He was the IMF Resident Representative in Croatia during 2004-2007. Other past IMF assignments in Europe included Italy, Greece, Slovenia and Cyprus. He joint the IMF in 1997, and after spending a year at the Research Department he moved to the Asian Department, where he worked for the Philippines and Indonesia during the East Asian financial crisis. His professional experience also includes internships in the World Bank and in the Harvard Institute of International Development, and teaching assignments in international economics and finance at Harvard University. He holds a BA in Economics from the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki, Greece and a Master and a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University. His research interests include international spillovers and economic growth. He has published extensively in all major journals in his field.

The entire paper can be found here.

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