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How Does Winning Math's Fields Medal Affect Productivity?


Last week Maryam Mirzakhani, a 37-year-old Iranian-born mathematician who works at Stanford University became the first woman to win the Fields Medal. This is the highest honor in math and it's often called the Nobel Prize of mathematics. There is some surprising new social science research however into what happens to mathematicians who win the Fields Medal. And to tell us about we're joined in the studio by NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, who joins us each week on the program. Shankar, welcome back.


GREENE: So, what's this new research?

VEDANTAM: Well, the research asks what's the effect of winning a big prize at an early age? How does it affect your future productivity? A couple of economists, Kirk Doran at Notre Dame and George Borjas at Harvard decided to look at winners of the Fields Medal to answer this question. And they looked at the Fields Medal for a couple of reasons. The first is that mathematicians tend to keep great data on productivity - who publishes papers, when they published the papers, how their doing in there in there...

GREENE: Who better to keep that kind of data than mathematicians themselves?

VEDANTAM: Exactly. And the second thing that's interesting is the Fields Medal is unusual in that it's given out only once every four years and it only goes to mathematicians who are under the age of 40.

GREENE: OK, so explain why that makes it a really good medal to sort of look at here.

VEDANTAM: The reason that's really good David is that you can now track the future productivity of people because you're giving the prize to them just as they're hitting the peak of their careers. Now last week for example four people won the Fields Medal. But what this means is that if you're 37-years-old and you were not one of those winners you're never going to win the Fields Medal because it's given out every four years. What Doran and Borjas realized is that they could compare the productivity of people who won the Fields Medal against the productivity of those 37- year-old people who didn't win the Fields Medal and compare what the productivity of these two groups are. And Doran told me that when he did this he found something really striking.


KIRK DORAN: People who when the Fields Medal produce many fewer papers after winning than one would've guessed from the previous trends in their output. Or from the trends of a very similar control group.

GREENE: What a minute, the prize actually makes people less productive in a way? Why is that happening?

VEDANTAM: Well, Doran and Borjas analyzed why this was happening and what they find is that mathematicians who win this big prize start trying their hand at unrelated fields in mathematics. It as though before the prize these mathematicians are really single-minded about their specific area of study but after they win this huge accolade they say, let me go try do something else. And when you get into a new field there's this learning curve, so it's not surprising that your productivity in this new discipline would start to fall. The irony here David, is that this prize was set up by John Charles Fields to encourage mathematicians to pursue these chosen fields - the fields they have picked. And in fact the idea was if you reward young mathematicians, people under 40, it'll spur them to do even more in these very narrow disciplines. Here's Doran again.


DORAN: I think it's not what John Charles Fields expected. He expected that in giving people a prize to honor and extoll their previous work that would encourage them to do more of the same work. What we find is that, you know, the opposite takes place.

GREENE: And if the opposite is taking place here Shankar, does that mean this prize is totally backfiring?

VEDANTAM: So, there's different ways to look at it I think, David. I mean, you could make the argument for example that the Fields Medal is so prestigious that it's encouraging people to do amazing work in the first place. And so it's clearly driving a lot of really good work. It also might be the case these mathematicians always wanted to do other things and the prize is liberating them to do it. So from their point of view it could be a very good thing.

The question in my mind really is how you think about genius. Are they people who are so smart that you can just take them from one field and plunk them in another field and they're going to continue to do spectacular work? In which case, what's happening with the Fields Medal is just great because you're taking these smart minds and putting them in new disciplines. On the other hand if you think of genius as really being domain specific, people are really good at doing this one narrow thing, then taking them away from that narrow thing into other fields you would have to argue is counterproductive.

GREENE: Shankar you're really good at covering social science research, stick with it, OK.

VEDANTAM: I'll try and do that, David.

GREENE: Appreciate it. Good you're with us.


GREENE: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam. He regularly joins us to talk about social science research. Follow him on Twitter at @HiddenBrain. You can follow this program at @NPRGreen, at @KellyMcEvers and at @morningedition. And you can tweet Kelly McEvers; you can also listen to Kelly McEvers. She is here hosting with me all week. Kelly it's always good to have you.


Thanks so much, David.

GREENE: She's here while Renee Montagne continues her sabbatical and Steve is away. Kelly McEvers, she'll be here all week. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.