Who should get prizes?

Leszek Kolakowski just won a new prize, the Kluge Prize, which is worth $1 million.

This is the nature of the prize:

The prize…is meant to highlight fields of study as varied as anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology and religion for which there is no major international award. It was conceived by the librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, and financed by the philanthropist John W. Kluge, who had no say in selecting the winner, library officials said.

In other words, it is intended to supplement the Nobel Prize. Kolakowski, a brilliant author, polymath, and critic of Marxism, is more than deserving. See also Jacob Levy’s excellent post on the matter, rebutting the charge that the award was politically motivated by “right-wing” considerations. After all, Kolakowski teaches at Oxford, hardly a hotbed of radical right sentiment.

In general we would expect that new prizes are awarded to the relatively old; Kolakowski is 76. Remember Cato’s Milton Friedman Prize of last year? It was awarded to the 85-year-old Lord Bauer, who died right before the award ceremony.

Presumably a new prize is seeking to build up its reputation, so its first few awards should be sterling in quality, not very controversial, and designed to generate maximum publicity. Once a prize is more established, the prize givers can take more chances, or use the prize to certify the quality of younger achievers, or use the prize to spur greater achievement.

Robin Hanson wonders why we don’t use more prizes today, in lieu of grants, to encourage science. In the eighteenth century, prizes not grants were the dominant means of encouraging science. One drawback of prizes is that they tend to be awarded in the interests of the prizegiver, and not necessarily to stimulate maximum scientific output. Arguably prizes should be awarded when people are younger, not older, if only for incentive reasons. Still, prizes make the most sense when you cannot predict where new innovation is coming from, and thus you do not know who should get the grants. As our world becomes more complex, less hierarchical, and more decentralized, I predict a greater reliance on prizes to stimulate science.


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