What are the acceptable predictions we can make from science metrics?

So one of my metrics rants (the other main one being the lack of objectivity in the term “impact,” but that’s for another blog post :) ) is that you cannot expect any system of metrics to predict in any reliable way “the next Einstein” because there aren’t enough instances of out-of-nowhere breakthroughs in science (cf. The mismeasurement of science). It’s just not sensible to try to make predictions about outliers. However there is enough available data to make sensible predictions about what Thomas Kuhn calls Normal Science.

So it’s with some interest that I stumbled upon the Thomson Reuters Citation Laureates which is an on-going attempt to predict the next set of Nobel prize winners on the basis of citations amassed by top-flite academics. My understand is that Nobel prizes in science are awarded for specific advances of research rather than life-time achievement. This is the reason, for instance, why Stephen Hawking, despite having glittering academic career and many awards to his name does not have a Nobel prize since the predictions his theoretical work makes have yet to be fully played out by experimental results. The interesting thing about the Citation Laureates project is that they’ve actually been moderately successful.

Of course this isn’t totally surprising, as to make any significant progress in any field you need to have put in a huge amount of time and effort mastering it and so it’s to be expected that break-through correlate with mastery of a subject, so just tracking the master increases your probability of success. But not all masters of a subject make breakthroughs in it and it’s precisely the breakthroughs the Nobel prizes award. Conversely however, I would say that such predictions might actually be more appropriate for life-time achievement awards such as the Fields Medal or the Turing Award since key career milestones are more easily tracked and predictions made of them.

We will doubtless some day see the next Einstein, an individual who at a stroke changes the way we understand the physcial world around us, but by the time we’ve realised that they’ve arrived, no one will care who called it first.

  1. Nico Adams’s avatar

    “We will doubtless some day see the next Einstein, an individual who at a stroke changes the way we understand the physcial world around us…”

    In all honesty, I think that that is one of the biggest misconceptions about how science and technology work that there are. It’s a popular science story – the modern day hero who, though he doesn’t slay dragons anymore, nevertheless changes our fundamental understanding of the universe at a stroke. We love these sorts of stories.

    Fact is though, that Neil Armstrong – the hero who walked on the moon – would have never walked on the moon without what you would call the “normal” scientific increments and the contribution of incremental innovation developed by an army of engineers and scientists. The same is true for Einstein – he stood on the knowledge of his time, participated in the scientific conversations of his time, incorporated the insights and fallacies of his colleagues into his own thinking. And then advaced, But he did not “at a stroke” change our understanding of the universe – it will have taken all these other contributions too.
    So I think that focussing on “normal science” is exactly the right thing to do.


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This work by Daniel Hagon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales.