Professor details dual role as Nobel Prize Committee member
Tomas Sjostrom, a professor in the Department of Economics, frequently travels to Sweden. But when he goes, he visits not to admire the views of Monteliusvagen or get lost between the shelves of Stockholm’s Stadsbibliotek. Instead, he travels to Sweden to choose the next recipient of the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences.
Sjostrom, one of the five full members in the Nobel Economic Prize Committee, a part of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, evaluates and selects winners for the prestigious prize every year. He was inducted into the group after completing his sixth year as an associate professor. Within the committee, he is the “game theory and microtheory person,” he said.
“To be on the committee either as full member or as an associate, you have to be a native of Sweden or at least related, since Swedish is the language used,” Sjostrom said. “They needed someone in game theory ... and it is my honor.”
The level of microeconomic theory that Sjostrom studies is highly abstract and theoretical, said Thomas Prusa, chair of the Department of Economics at the University.
Sjostrom’s work is half-economist and half-mathematician, Prusa said, describing him as a “personable, genuine and collegial man” and an extremely brilliant economist.
The Nobel Prize nomination process takes place in January, when economics professors around the world bring up hundreds of qualified nominees, Sjostrom said. Beginning next month, in February, Sjostrom and his colleague on the committee will start to go through the extensive list of promising candidates.
“After reducing the list to reasonable nominations, we discuss the candidates [for] meetings after meetings as the spring goes on,” Sjostrom said. “It gradually becomes clear who is the most worthy winner before summer.”
The Nobel Prize for Economics was not in the original will of Alfred Nobel, Sjostrom said. Rather, the Swedish Central Bank established and endowed the prize, the Sveriges Riksbank Prize, in memory of him in the 1960s.
“[Its establishment] indicates that, finally, economics is recognized and celebrated as an area of science, just like the other hard sciences,” Sjostrom said.
Most importantly, Sjostrom said, selection of the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences follows the same principles according to Alfred Nobel’s will — “prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”
The Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences follows the same criteria, procedure and timetable with the other prizes such as physics and chemistry, he said, and is incorporated in the Nobel Prize Ceremony.
“It is the most eminent prize that an economist could get,” Sjostrom said. “[Committee members] have this in the back of our minds that the prize should go to groundbreaking contributions that have impacts not just in academia, but on society as a whole.”
Sjostrom took the example of Elinor Ostrom, the only female recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences so far, and challenged the conventional idea of “tragedy of the commons.” The tragedy of the commons is a scenario where people overuse shared resources, such as irrigation canals, lakes and forests.
“She did both empirical and theoretical work around the world about how people successfully avoid this tragedy,” he said. “[Non-economists recipients] are well known in their own area, but their works also have great influence in economics.”
Prusa emphasized that there are researchers that produce 50 academic papers but yet have no chance of winning the Nobel Prize. For other researchers like John Nash, quantity means less than quality — only one paper won him the Nobel Prize.
“We have given prizes to psychologists, political scientists, mathematicians whose works are influential to economics, such as Elinor Ostrom, John Nash and Daniel Kahneman,” he said.
Prusa said membership in the committee means a tremendous amount of work and commitment, but his and Sjostrom’s involvement with the Nobel Prize reflects back well on Rutgers.
“It is really prestigious to have someone in the department who is that high in the profession and in the lead selection team,” he said.
Back at Rutgers, Sjostrom extends his influence to current and previous students.
Levent Ulku, a PhD student under Sjostrom, called him an “inspiring researcher.”
“When you ask him a question in a seminar or talk to him about ideas, he always has something constructive to say,” Ulku said. “Every time I left his office, I understand my thoughts better. He has this magical touch that very few people in the profession who I met have.”