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Economists and Epidemiologists: Variations on the Nobel Pursuit

Wilcox, Allen J.

doi: 10.1097/EDE.0b013e3181aed450
Nobel Prize: Editorial

Economics and epidemiology have some things in common. Both disciplines are built on observation rather than experiment–with few opportunities to test hypotheses in the most rigorous ways. Both disciplines compensate with sophisticated mathematical underpinnings. And while both groups have occasional moments of glory, both are subject to public skepticism (with economists bearing the brunt lately). There is one respect, however, in which the two fields seem to part company: Economists win Nobel Prizes. Epidemiologists do not.

Alfred Nobel created 5 annual prizes to reward those who “have conferred the greatest benefit” on humankind. In this issue of the journal, several prominent epidemiologists reflect on the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine, and the role played by epidemiologists in laying the groundwork for those accomplishments.1 Another perspective comes from Hans-Olov Adami, who has served on the Nobel Committee. Although such service places obligations of confidentiality, Adami provides a personal view on the chances that an epidemiologist might one day carry home the Prize.2

If truth be told, economists do not win Nobel Prizes either–there is no Nobel Prize in Economics. There is a Swedish Bank Prize for economics, created in 1968 by the Central Bank of Sweden and awarded “in honor of” Alfred Nobel. This bank prize, riding on the coattails of Alfred Nobel's Prizes, has been controversial since its inception.3 Regardless, it is not clear that the bank prize has provided a net benefit to the field it was intended to elevate. In the economic boom of the early 2000s, a high level of confidence was placed in the theories of certain confident economists, and we might wonder whether the reflected aura of Nobel's Prizes contributed to this abundance of confidence.

Epidemiologists tend by comparison to be more modest. (It does not help that we must regularly explain we are not skin doctors.) Our hard-won opinions come laden with limitations and uncertainties. More research, it seems, is always needed. A Nobel Prize or two would no doubt add some spring to our step. But would this change anything of substance? As our commentators note, epidemiologists may never carry home the medal, but there is plenty of evidence that we have helped to make the world a healthier place.

Is there a better prize?

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1. Franco E, Olsen J, Saracci R, Detels R. Epidemiology's contributions to a Nobel prize recognition. Epidemiology. 2009;20:632–634.
2. Adami HO. Epidemiology and the elusive Nobel Prize. Epidemiology. 2009;20:635–637.
3. Brittan, Samuel (19 December 2003). “The not so noble Nobel Prize.” The Financial Times. Available at: Accessed 28 April 2009.
© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.