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How Big a Help is an Ig?

Winning an important scientific prize doesn’t just acknowledge outstanding work.  Often, it also gives a matchless boost to the recipient’s career and reputation. This week, for example, the world’s attention is riveted on the announcement of the Nobel Prizes, the incomparable honors that propel scientists to the top rung of prestige and recognition.

Last week, on the other hand, media around the world (including our sister blog, Science Insider) covered the awarding of a rather less coveted — but much more comical — set of prizes, the IgNobels, which annually honor — if that’s the word — science “that makes people laugh, and then makes them think.”  
Well, they got us thinking, too.  Specifically, since we’re Science Careers, we wondered what winning a spoof award does to the career prospects of recipients, a number of whom, we noticed, are quite early in their careers.  Do tenure and promotion committees look with favor on a publication that garnered the authors and their institution world-wide attention for being, well, downright laughable?  Or do they recoil in horror from a piece of work that might be taken, at first at least, as, er, exceptionally frivolous?  Or do they just take the dignified approach of ignoring the whole thing?  To find out, we asked Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, which sponsors the annual IgNobels.

Presented each year since 1991 at — but not by — Harvard University in an elaborate ceremony that involves several real Nobel laureates, a specially composed opera, and many paper airplanes, the parody prizes recognize real scientific publications that have a very high “wha???” factor.  This year’s crop, for example, included a study of a beetle given to mating with a particular type of Australian beer bottle; the invention of a Japanese fire alarm designed to wake sleeping people by spraying them with wasabi, the green horseradish that accompanies sushi; and Dutch-Belgian-Australian-US research into the effect of an insistently full bladder on decision-making.  The winners are real scientists, many of whom come to the satiric extravaganza at their own expense. 
No one has actual data on the IgNobels’ effects, Abrahams told Science Careers by e-mail.  His guess — and it’s “only a guess!” he writes, “is that in some cases it helps (by bringing press attention, which comes to very few scientists, ever.)  And that in many cases it has no real effect on their careers.”
To mitigate any possible damage, the prize committee almost always contacts the winners in advance “and quietly give(s) them the chance to decline the honor.  So the vast majority of scientists who have IgNobel Prizes have made the decision to accept them,” Abrahams notes. The few who have not been notified beforehand are “so very famous that it’s inconceivable that an IgNobel could have any effect on their careers.”
In 21 years, very few people have refused the IgNobel.  Those who have are overwhelmingly “at the very start of a career and work for someone who is hostile to them,” Abrahams continues.  “These individuals generally say they don’t want to give their supervisor/ boss/whatever one more thing that might be twisted and used against them.”  Some young scientists who rejected the prize have have told Abrahams that a “supervisor FORBADE them from accepting.”  And in a few cases, a whole team of researchers of varying ages “wanted to accept — but were forbidden by the senior scientist.”  In such cases, “the senior scientist saw nothing funny about his (it’s always a he in these cases) and was highly, almost violently, offended that anyone (especially his own team) found pleasure and amusement in what they had done.”  
In fact, though, the evidence overwhelmingly supports the old saw that any publicity is better than no publicity.  Between 10% and 20% of the entries are self-nominated, Abrahams says, and it’s “almost alarmingly common…for institutions to nominate their own people (a fair number of whom are young scientists).”  Nominations of these types rarely succeed, but they keep coming because “some winners have received tremendous amounts of publicity — internationally as well as locally.  And attention seems to be a rare commodity.”
And for believers in post hoc ergo propter hoc, it could even be that an IgNobel is, as the Lasker Awards are said to be, a prelude to even greater scientific laurels.  In 2000, physicist Andre Geim shared an IgNobel for attempts to magnetically levitate a frog.  A decade later came the call from Stockholm, and there was no Ig as he shared the real thing in 2010 for his work on graphene.  Abrahams draws no conclusion from this combination of events.  But, we have to admit, it does make you think.