Today the recipients of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences were announced – three American professors that did important work on predicting stock and bond market prices.
While that all sounds fascinating (I’m only partially being ironic here), it drew my attention to a question – what is the importance of agricultural and environmental economics in the eyes of the Nobel committee when it makes its decision on the Prize in Economics? Looking up the prize on Wikipedia led me down an interesting rabbit hole of controversy; firstly, this prize is not one of the ones that was originally intended by Alfred Nobel; it was only later established and associated with the other awards, with people like Nobel’s grandson saying that it’s misusing the famous Nobel name when his grandfather had never wanted a prize for economics to exist.
Friedrich Hayek, upon receiving the prize in 1974, gave a thought-provoking speech, saying he would have advised against establishing a Nobel Prize for Economics had he been asked beforehand:
“the Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess… This does not matter in the natural sciences. Here the influence exercised by an individual is chiefly an influence on his fellow experts; and they will soon cut him down to size if he exceeds his competence. But the influence of the economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally.”
Other interesting tidbits from that article:
- Until 2009, all laureates in economics had been men. In 2009, Elinor Ostrom became the first woman to be awarded the prize. All five Nobel Prizes had previously been awarded at some time to a woman.
- As of 2008, about 85% of laureates have been US citizens (by birth or by naturalisation), with only five laureates being from outside North America or Western Europe (Arthur Lewis, Robert Aumann, Leonid Kantorovich, Amartya Sen and Christopher A. Pissarides).
Looking through the list of laureates, the best I can do is identifying Amartya Sen (who wrote about poverty and access to food, 1998 laureate), Elinor Ostrom (who did important work on the management of the commons, including environmental public goods, 2009 laureate) and Theodore Schultz (who worked on development economics and earned a PhD in agricultural economics in 1930; he was the 1979 laureate) as having vague connections to my field. Granted, the field of economics is vast, but this excerpt of the acceptance speech of Schultz still rings true:
“Most of the people in the world are poor, so if we knew the economics of being poor, we would know much of the economics that really matters. Most of the world’s poor people earn their living from agriculture, so if we knew the economics of agriculture, we would know much of the economics of being poor.”
Yet, this opinion does not seem very representative of the committee deciding on the award, which seems to favor mainstream economists and conventional theorists above and beyond all.
On the other hand, it was refreshing to read an article by a friend of mine on the Right to Livelihood Award, often considered “The Alternative Nobel Prize”. Indeed, one of its recipients this year is an Swiss agronomist and entomologist, Hans R. Herren, that has done tremendous work on biological pest control, including spearheading a program to protect cassava harvests from a pest epidemic that has been estimated to have saved the lives of 20 million people. He was also the co-chair of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), an inspirational intergovernmental research project on the future of sustainable agriculture that published a landmark report in 2009 that (sadly) few have been willing to listen to. I could go on, but would recommend you check out his bio on the Award’s website if you are interested.
Now, I don’t want to discredit the influence of the Right to Livelihood Award, which is immensely important to have (and obviously Herren is not an agricultural economist so the analogy might be imperfect – but seeing as such independent initiatives do get less limelight than the Nobel name, I wonder what would it take for more alternative and inspiring work to also be recognized by the Swedish committee entitled to give out the Nobel Prizes, for example the one in Economic Sciences?