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Annual Nobel Predictions Announced, but Forecasting Prizes Remains a Tricky Business

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Konstantin Novoselov and Andre Geim, 2010 Nobel laureates in physics. Credit: University of Manchester

Information and media firm Thomson Reuters released its annual Nobel Prize predictions today, highlighting 24 researchers whose influential work could make them contenders for a Nobel in physics, chemistry, economics, or physiology or medicine. (The Thomson Reuters methodology, which tracks citations of research articles, does not work for forecasting the Nobels for literature or peace.)

The picks for the Nobels, which will be rolled out over the course of a week starting October 3, appear below, but the honorees shouldn’t adjust their sleep schedules to get on Swedish time just yet. For although the predictions have met with some success in the past, the Nobels are full of surprises, and the overall success rate of the individual picks has been low.

Every year since 2006, when Thomson began trotting out large numbers of picks on its Web site, the firm has mined publication and citation data to identify researchers of exceptional influence. And each year the firm has produced a new crop of predictions, which adds to the pool of potential correct picks, since Thomson considers it a win even if a prediction does not come true until years later. In other words, a prediction from 2007 is still valid in 2011. So the odds of success would seem to increase with each go-round, as the pool of past and present picks grows, but the predictions have not been coming true with increasing frequency [see graph].

The size of the eligible pool and the relatively small number of Nobels issued each year mean that inclusion on the Thomson Reuters list is hardly a guarantee of future glory. For even though one third of the Nobels granted in physics, chemistry, economics, and physiology or medicine since 2006 have gone to researchers previously flagged by Thomson Reuters, only 13 of the 111 picks (11.7 percent) made between 2006 and 2010 have gone on to receive a Nobel, either in the year of their selection or in the years following.

With the addition of the 24 new Nobel predictions listed at the end of this article, Thomson Reuters has 120 individuals on the prediction list who remain eligible for a Nobel this year, going back only to the picks made since 2006. (The firm made picks sporadically in years prior.) Researchers who have already won the Nobel (that is, successful predictions) or individuals who have died since their selection by Thomson Reuters do not count toward the tally of eligible researchers. (The Nobel Foundation does not give posthumous awards.)
Chart of correct Thomson Reuters Nobel predictions, 2006-2010

Last year, when Thomson Reuters had 99 eligible picks, only two hit among the nine awardees in physics, chemistry, economics, and physiology or medicine—Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their pioneering work with the one-atom-thick form of carbon known as graphene. The duo had been pegged as likely candidates by Thomson Reuters in 2008.

But enough caveats. Without further ado, here are the 24 researchers predicted to be in the running for a Nobel, along with the Thomson Reuters summary of their work:

CHEMISTRY:
Allen J. Bard
of the University of Texas at Austin, for “the development and application of scanning electrochemical microscopy.”

Jean M. J. Fréchet of the University of California, Berkeley, and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia; Donald A. Tomalia of Central Michigan University and Dendritic Nanotechnologies in Mount Pleasant, Mich.; and Fritz Vögtle of the University of Bonn in Germany, for “the invention and development of dendritic polymers.”

Martin Karplus of Harvard University and Louis Pasteur University in France, for “pioneering simulations of the molecular dynamics of biomolecules.”

ECONOMICS:
Douglas W. Diamond
of the University of Chicago, for “his analysis of financial intermediation and monitoring.”

Jerry A. Hausman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Halbert L. White, Jr., of the University of California, San Diego, for “their contributions to econometrics, specifically the Hausman specification test and the White standard errors test.”

Anne O. Krueger of Johns Hopkins University and Gordon Tullock of George Mason University School of Law, for “their description of rent-seeking behavior and its implications.”

PHYSICS:
Alain Aspect
of the Institute of Optics and the Polytechnic University in France; John F. Clauser of J. F. Clauser & Associates in Walnut Creek, Calif.; and Anton Zeilinger of the University of Vienna and the Austrian Academy of Sciences, for “their tests of Bell’s inequalities and research on quantum entanglement.”

Sajeev John of the University of Toronto and Eli Yablonovitch of the University of California, Berkeley, for “their invention and development of photonic band gap materials.”

Hideo Ohno of Tohoku University in Japan, for “contributions to ferromagnetism in diluted magnetic semiconductors.”

PHYSIOLOGY OR MEDICINE:
Brian J. Druker
of Oregon Health & Science University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Nicholas B. Lydon of Granite Biopharma in Jackson Hole, Wyo., AnaptysBio in San Diego and Blueprint Medicines in Cambridge, Mass.; and Charles L. Sawyers of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for “their development of imatinib and dasatinib, revolutionary, targeted treatments for chronic myeloid leukemia.”

Robert S. Langer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Joseph P. Vacanti of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, “for their pioneering research in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.”

Jacques F. A. P. Miller of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and the University of Melbourne in Australia, for “his discovery of the function of the thymus and the identification of T cells and B cells in mammalian species,” with Robert L. Coffman of Dynavax Technologies in Berkeley, Calif., and Timothy R. Mosmann of the University of Rochester Medical Center, for “their discovery of two types of T lymphocytes, TH1 and TH2, and their role in regulating host immune response.”

The fact is, the Nobels are maddeningly unpredictable. A committee of scientists selects winners from secret nominations, and an award might go to researchers whose key work came decades prior and is now foundational to entire industries, or it might go to researchers such as Geim and Novoselov, whose work is so new that its impact is not yet clear. The Thomson Reuters list of predicted laureates certainly reads like a who’s who of the relevant disciplines, but when it comes time for the Swedes to make their announcements next month, it’s anyone’s guess whose name will come up.

About the Author: John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter @jmtsn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Postulator 6:05 am 09/22/2011

    They’re going about this prediction business the wrong way. The best way to predict the future is to follow the money.

    I’d expect large betting agencies to have a much better, and more consistent idea of who’s going to win than Thomson Reuters. And they’d cover all categories.

    Link to this

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