Defining Excellence in economics: 70 Years of John Bates Clark Medals

clark_medal_front_smAndrej Svorenčík and I have a new working paper on the history of the John Bates Clark medal (SSRN  and SocArXiv links). We combine archival evidence on the establishment and early years of the award and quantitative analysis of the profiles of the laureates to study the intellectual and institutional determinants of “excellence” in economics: how economists disagreed on what count as a “fundamental contribution” in economics, how they handled topic, methods, institutional and gender diversity issues.

We are still struggling with how to interpret our data, so comments are very much welcome.

Below are excerpts from the introduction. There will be another post dealing with my unanswered questions, methodological struggles and findings on this project.

In 2017 the John Bates Clark Medal (JBC Medal) turned seventy, and the 39th medalist was selected for this prestigious award. Established in 1947 by the American Economic Association (AEA) to reward an American economist under the age of forty for “most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge,” it has become a widely acknowledged professional and public marker of excellence in economics research. It is frequently dubbed the “baby Nobel Prize” as twelve awardees later went on to receive the Bank of Sweden Award in Economic Sciences in Honor of Alfred (hereafter Nobel Prize). It provides an excellent window into how economists define excellence because it is as much a recognition of the medalists’ achievements as it is a reflection what is considered to be the current state and prospects of the discipline. For the Committee on Honors and Awards (hereafter CHA) and the Executive Committee of the AEA, selecting a laureate involves identifying, evaluating and ranking new trends in economic research as they develop and are represented by young scholars under forty.

The Medal has become such a coveted prize commanding the attention of the entire economics profession and the public that it went from being awarded biennially to annually in 2009. It might thus seem surprising how little is known about the reasons for its establishment and about its tumultuous past. Even less is known about the debates that it provoked such as those pertaining to its selection criteria. After three first unanimous choices of laureates – Paul Samuelson (1947), Kenneth Boulding (1949), and Milton Friedman (1951) – the Medal was increasingly challenged. It was not awarded in 1953, then almost discontinued three times before it finally gained acceptance and stabilized during the 1960s.

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1947 ballots (Samuelson elected against Boulding and Stigler)

Our purpose, in this paper, is not to study the medal as an incentive, but as a signal for the changing definition of excellence in economics, as well as a marker of how merit and privilege are intertwined in scientific recognition. Indeed, Robert Friedman argues in his study of the history of the Nobel prizes, “excellence is not an unambiguous concept, not even in science” (2001, p. ix). The Nobel Prize has become the ultimate symbol of scientific excellence and a shorthand indicator for genius. But even though exceptional talent is a shared feature of scientists who become laureates, Friedman adds that “prizes, by definition, are political, are a form of governing marked as much by interests and intrigues as by insightful judgment” (2001, p. 1). His extensive survey of discussions surrounding the chemistry, physics and biology prizes show how some awards (or lack thereof) reflected the changing scientific, cultural, political and personal agendas of the members of the Swedish committee. The Nobel Prize in Economics was no exception. Offer and Söderberg 2016 and Mirowski 2016 relate how the prize was born out of the frustration of those economists at the Riksbank and their lack of independence in setting the Swedish monetary policy.

Michael Barany’s 2015 history of the Fields Medal likewise showcases a general point that myths surrounding prizes often conceal a messier reality, and that their history convey rich information about a discipline’s standards and identity. Barany argues that the Fields Medal was not established as a substitute for a missing Nobel Prize in mathematics, but as a way to unify a discipline riven with political and methodological divides in the 1930s. While “exceptional talent seems a prerequisite for a Fields Medal,” he argues, “so does being the right kind of person in the right place at the right time.” Acknowledging various types of contingencies “does not diminish the impressive feats of individual past medalists”. The laureates as a group represent “the products of societies and institutions in which mathematicians have not been mere bystanders” (p. 19).

It is such an approach that we want to follow in this paper in order to understand the evolving nature of excellence in economics. The archival evidence we have gathered shows that the establishment of the John Bates Clark Medal, and early disputes on what represents excellence in economics speaks volumes of the internal dynamics of economics and its situation among other sciences since the 1940s and 1950s. Further, both Barany and Friedman emphasize the lack of diversity both within selecting committees and among laureates in terms of gender, educational background and employment, yet they do not provide a thorough quantitative analysis of their claims about the missing diversity. In order to understand how the nature and diversity of “right person in the right place” have evolved across decades, we have supplemented our qualitative evidence with a quantitative analysis of the trajectories and characteristics of the 39 laureates.

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