After 75 winners, Nobel Economics Prize still contentious

GMT 12:57 2015 Saturday ,10 October

Arab Today, arab today After 75 winners, Nobel Economics Prize still contentious

Each year, critics note that Alfred Nobel
Stockholm - AFP

For economists, who often disagree with one another and get their forecasts wrong, the idea of a Nobel Prize for economics remains controversial after 75 years.

This year's winner of the "Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel" will be announced on Monday at 1:00 pm (1100 GMT) at a ceremony in Stockholm that wraps up the 2015 Nobel season.

But is it a "real" Nobel prize, or merely an event seeking to profit from the venerable Swedish brand?

Each year, critics note that Alfred Nobel, the Swedish philanthropist and scientist who founded the other awards, never had the idea to reward economists.

The economics prize was created in 1968 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Swedish central bank, and the first laureate was named a year later.

Unlike the medicine, physics, and chemistry prizes announced the week before, "economics is not an experimental science," Peter Englund, the former head of the Economic Sciences Prize Committee, wrote on the Nobel Foundation's website.

Others say economics can indeed be experimental. In 2002 the prize went to Vernon Smith of the United States, who got his students to set up small markets for establishing "laboratory experiments as a tool in empirical economic analysis."

This year the jury may choose to honour someone who has combined a research career with the harsh reality of the financial crisis: France's Olivier Blanchard, who stepped down as chief economist of the International Monetary Fund this month, or Ben Bernanke, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve.

Still, the favourites are a host of decidedly more low-key professors at US universities such as Indian-born Avinash Dixit of Princeton, American economist Robert Barro of Harvard and Finland's Bengt Holmstrom at MIT (LSE: 0MBJ.L - news) .

- Diverse views -

The diversity of the potential candidates reflects profound differences within the field.

Economics largely lacks the universal "laws" other disciplines are built on. For example, the notion that consumers are rational -- which is the basis of a lot of research -- was dismissed by 2013 laureate Robert Shiller.

For Sheila Dow, an economics professor at the University of Stirling in Scotland, the diversity is an asset.

"It (Other OTC: ITGL - news) is better to have a range of approaches to draw on ... to address new economic problems," she said.

Saying she appreciated the "plurality", she emphasised that "economics can be a mature social science and yet not aspire to establish universal laws or general agreement."

The very same thing however is criticised by some of her peers. They say honouring the best researchers puts too much emphasis on abstract, intellectual models that are far removed from the daily workings of the economy.

"The trouble with the Nobel award is not so much its choice of man ... but its designation of economics as a scientific field worthy of receiving a Nobel prize," Michael Hudson, an American economics professor, wrote in 1970.

The concept was "still as bad" 45 years later, he claimed.

"It is basically public relations for Chicago-type free market theory," Hudson told AFP, referring to the school of thought that originated at the University of Chicago in the 1940s and which has often been honoured by the Nobel committee.

- More weight -

The discipline carries more weight than it did in the 1960s and the 1970s for a number of reasons.

Mathematical models have become more refined, economics departments have grown in size and economists have become an important voice in public debate, even though their audience is sometimes sceptical.

Members of the public often point out that economists have been unreliable in predicting financial crisis and economic downturns, and that so far a remedy against mass unemployment remains elusive.

And winners like last year's Nobel economics laureate, France's Jean Tirole, prefer their academic life to public engagement.

The Toulouse-based researcher said the award had given him international recognition as well as invitations to all kinds of different events.

"I have chosen not to (go) because I prefer to stay in my laboratory," he told France Info radio, referring to his office.

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