Should computer science have a Nobel Prize?

Nobel Prize medal

I really can’t help myself. If I see an interesting discussion, I have to jump in.

Yesterday John Storey, a Princeton professor in genomics and statistics, tweeted the following, which was retweeted by University of Utah CS professor Matt Might:

Those of you in the computer science field are probably aware that there already is a similar prize in our field, namely the AM Turing Award, given annually by ACM. Similarly, mathematics has the Fields Medal and the Abel Prize. When I pointed this out, Dr. Might replied:

To be fair, he followed it up with this:

So this is what we’re really getting at: recognition outside our community. My first reaction is that the whole thing smacks of brand envy, which I’m generally skeptical of. Also, in the extremely unlikely event I win the Turing Award someday, I don’t think my dad’s reaction is going to be, “But what about the Nobel Prize?” However, it’s fair to say that I’d have to explain to him what the Turing Award is. Maybe not having a more widely-recognized award is holding our field back in some way.

The most entertaining business meeting ever

This is not the first time I’ve encountered a lack of understanding of the computer science community’s conventions. A while back, I was at a conference and failed to make my way out of the room before the start of the business meeting.

As it turned out, the meeting was quite entertaining. The chair of the organization putting on the conference got up to speak and suggested that maybe we should consider channeling more effort into journal papers than is currently the case. The line of reasoning went something like:

  • Although most conference papers in computer science are rigorously peer-reviewed, people from other fields often don’t know this because this is not the convention in other fields.
  • In many universities, computer science is part of the same college as fields like biology and chemistry, where journal papers are more heavily emphasized.
  • In such a case, a computer science professor competing against, say, a biology professor might appear to have a less prestigious publication record merely due to having fewer journal publications.

That said, there’s also a case to be made for the status quo. The turnaround time for journals is really long–over a year in many cases. Things in computer science often change so quickly that with that kind of turnaround, results can already be obsolete by the time they’re published.

So how did this lead to the most entertaining business meeting ever? People had visceral reactions to the idea, and mostly negative ones. By the way some people reacted, you’d have thought the chair had said that the next year’s conference would be clothing-optional. A lot of people don’t like having their traditions changed, even if they’re relatively small changes for well-thought-out reasons.

Brand recognition, or lack thereof

So how does this relate to the award situation? There are some important parallels. We have an established way of doing things that works well for us but isn’t well-understood outside of our community. This has the potential to cause misunderstandings when dealing with people from other fields.

I explained this situation to a colleague, and they said it made them feel like computer science wasn’t an important enough field for a Nobel Prize. It’s not a sentiment I share, but I understand where it comes from and suspect many others feel the same way.

Also, I’d guess that if you took a random sampling of Nobel Prize winners and a random sampling of Turing Award winners, there would be more recognition amongst the former than the latter (this would be an easy hypothesis to test, should anyone be so inclined). Top people in medicine, economics, etc. often become public figures in a way that computer scientists typically aren’t.

Practical considerations

For the record, there has been only one change to the prize categories over the years: the economics prize was added in 1968 and is not considered a Nobel Prize per se. But it’s worth discussing:

  • Should we add more categories?
  • If so, how should we go about doing it?

I’m not sure we could come up with a set of categories that would be both inclusive enough and satisfying enough. Aside from the question of where to draw the boundaries, I think having substantially more categories doesn’t necessarily confer the same prestige on all recipients. Think of awards like the Oscars. Sure, the person who gets an Oscar for costume design gets the same award that an actor or director does, but is that going to make that costume designer more well-known by the average moviegoer?

Conclusion

While I’m not sure that expanding the categories for Nobel Prizes is a good idea, I think the discussion has highlighted a real concern: the lack of recognition for computer scientists in the public sphere (it probably doesn’t help that the most recognizable people associated with computing generally aren’t computer scientists).

So what can we do? I think we can start by promoting our own awards more heavily. In the case of the Turing Award, the prize money is comparable to what a Nobel Prize winner gets. It’s the top award in our field, as the Nobel Prize is for the fields where it’s awarded. Maybe we just need to see about getting Neil Patrick Harris to host the award ceremony.

How do you think public recognition of computer scientists could be improved? Share your thoughts in the comments!