Sunday, November 25, 2018

Annals of Ranking: Which decades produced "better" Nobel Prizes in Science?

Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen have the click-bait article of the month in The Atlantic, Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck, with the following summary (abstract?):

Despite vast increases in the time and money spent on research, progress is barely keeping pace with the past. What went wrong?

Here's their methodology:

we ran a survey asking scientists to compare Nobel Prize–winning discoveries in their fields. We then used those rankings to determine how scientists think the quality of Nobel Prize–winning discoveries has changed over the decades.

As a sample survey question, we might ask a physicist which was a more important contribution to scientific understanding: the discovery of the neutron (the particle that makes up roughly half the ordinary matter in the universe) or the discovery of the cosmic-microwave-background radiation (the afterglow of the Big Bang). Think of the survey as a round-robin tournament, competitively matching discoveries against each other, with expert scientists judging which is better.

For the physics prize, we surveyed 93 physicists from the world’s top academic physics departments (according to the Shanghai Rankings of World Universities), and they judged 1,370 pairs of discoveries. [...]

Collison and Nielsen did this decade-wise comparison of Nobel winning discoveries across nine decades spanning the years 1901-1990 [The authors note that "[the prize-winning] work is attributed to the year in which the discovery was made, not when the subsequent prize was awarded"].

Not surprisingly, the two following decades (1911-1930) get the best ratings.