Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Truth in advertizing (university Nobel laureate edition).

In yesterday's Los Angeles Times there's an interesting piece on how universities count "their" Nobel laureates. It goes without saying that this is not silent, internal, beaming with pride at the accomplishment of someone dear to us counting. Rather, we're talking about Nobel counts that get put out in university communications with the world.

First, what's going on with the counting?

There seem not to be uniform, agreed upon standards for identifying which institution gets to claim a Nobel laureate. Some, like UC Santa Barbara, are fairly strict, laying claim only to professors who won their Nobels while at UCSB and who are still active members of the UCSB faculty. Other schools, like the University of Chicago, claim as theirs Nobel laureates who were students at Chicago, or did research at Chicago, or are past or current members of the faculty. There's probably an argument of the "it takes a village" variety that could be made to support this kind of practice … but it seems like actually making an explicit argument about why you count Bobby Braniac as your Nobel laureate if he did two years of graduate school with you before transferring out and winning a Nobel a dozen years later might just serve to draw attention to the fact that your laureate count is inflated. (If you can legitimately claim a 15% contribution to Braniac's scientific trajectory, does that make him only a 0.15 laureate for your count? What does that do to the total number of Nobel laureates you can legitimately report?)

From the linked article:

There is good reason for ambiguity in the accounting.

"A university does many things," said David J. Gross, a UC Santa Barbara professor who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2004. "It teaches, so it's proud of its students who went on to do good things. They're proud of their researchers who worked at the institution who have done good things. And of course they're proud of the people who are there now and their impact on current research and current teaching."

So one school might claim a Nobel laureate who was there as an undergraduate, another for graduate work, another for advanced research, and several for being on the faculty. Who can say which school is most worthy?

Caltech President David Baltimore, whose 1975 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine is claimed by MIT, Rockefeller University and Caltech, sees no need to attempt an answer.

"It is sort of a game, and you might as well play it by whatever rules you want, like solitaire," he said.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Is it really OK for universities to count Nobel laureates by any rules they want?

To answer that, we need to understand why Nobel laureate counts are supposed to matter. Again, quoting from the article:

Nobel Prizes make schools attractive to prospective students, faculty and donors, conferring the aura of a winner. A university's roster of laureates is "probably more significant than [the college rankings in] U.S. News and World Report," said F. Sherwood Rowland, a UC Irvine professor who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1995.

The fact that a school has one or more Nobel laureates is supposed to tell you something about that school. Just what it's supposed to tell you is a bit nebulous. If a university has a laureate who won the Nobel based on research done at that university, it tells you that high-powered research happens there. If a university has laureates who are still active in research, it tells you there may be opportunities for graduate students to learn from them. (Students might also learn from these luminaries in the classroom, but that's not clear from the mere presence of Nobel laureates on the faculty.) If a university was where a laureate completed his or her bachelor's degree, it tells you that an undergraduate education there is not sufficient to put people off research.

But closer inspection can tell you some other important things about a university. Some universities are the places laureates did the research recognized with Nobel prizes, while others tend to make senior hires of Nobel laureates. This tells you something not only about research conditions at the different kinds of schools but also about the philosophy for building excellent faculties (grow them yourself vs. buy them already famous). How many of a university's claimed laureates were, say, denied tenure while in the midst of their ground-breaking research? This says something about the university's receptiveness to cutting-edge ideas as well as shining a light on its standards for tenure.

Universities are reaching different audiences when they announce their Nobel body counts: students, faculty, administrators, alumni and other potential donors, funding agencies contemplating the feasibility of new research at a given institution, prospective students (and their tuition-payers), and propsective employees. For certain purposes (like securing donations for a new science building), just rolling off the list of your Nobel laureates may do the job of giving the donors warm fuzzies about the instituion. But from the point of view of presenting prospective students with an accurate picture of how their experience will be enhanced, certain ways of counting your Nobel laureates seem less than informative, if not downright deceptive. High school senior Carly Cranium might be better off knowing whether this university is one that has provided an excellent undergraduate education for Nobel laureates, or whether courses in her intended major will be taught by a Nobel laureate, or whether she'll have an opportunity to do research in a lab where prize winning research was done. Otherwise, the number of Nobel laureates ends up being a statistic with as much meaning to the prospective student as the number of acres the campus occupies and the percent of alumni who give money to the endowment.

For early-career scientists picking a suitable environment (for research, teaching, and maintaining a baseline level of sanity), it seems like the laureate count is meaningless without further information. It's nice to know a university will think fondly of you once you've won fame and fortune, but it's better still to know whether a place will nurture you before the world knows you're a star.

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