NYU Goof-Up on Economics Nobel for Paul Romer Shows Down Side of Proactive PR

Past laureates Angus Deaton and Amartya Sen tell The Wire there's no prior notification; the accidental release of a NYU press note on one of its economists winning the 2016 Nobel is because top universities prepare for any possibility beforehand.

A screenshot of NYU's press conference invitation, which was quickly retracted. Credit: The Wire

A screenshot of NYU’s press conference invitation, which was quickly retracted. Credit: The Wire

New Delhi: An accidentally released announcement from New York University about World Bank chief economist Paul Romer – who also teaches at the NYU business school – winning the 2016 Economics Nobel prize is likely a case of good preparation going horrendously wrong rather than an early ‘leak’ of the recipient’s name.

As always, the Nobel prize for economics, known officially as the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, will be announced on October 10 by the Royal Swedish Academy of Science.

On Thursday, October 6,  however, NYU’s Stern Business School mistakenly uploaded a press release, inviting journalists to a press conference next Monday for “NYU Stern’s Paul Romer, 2016 Nobel Laureate in Economics”.

“New York University Stern School of Business will hold a press conference with economist Paul Romer, winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Economics,” the press release read, a screenshot of which is shown above.

Romer, a widely respected and globally known economist, rocketed into the academic elite in the late 1980s with his work on endogenous growth theory – a field of research that sought to explain how technological change comes about; more specifically defining it as a endogenous factor, caused by investment in physical capital or research and development.

Romer, however, hasn’t won the Nobel prize just yet and the university’s mistimed announcement cannot be taken as early intimation of the storied award being his. This is because recipients never receive more than a half-hour heads-up before the announcement is formally made in Stockholm. The Wire interviewed two previous winners of the Economic Nobel – Professor Angus Deaton (2015) and Amartya Sen (1998) to confirm that the committee’s decision is conveyed to the winner not days or weeks in advance but literally minutes before the world at large gets to know.

NYU quickly took down the webpage and issued a statement apologising for the error. “We are deeply distressed that a draft test web page, not officially linked to our website, unintentionally became viewable on the web,” a Stern School of Business statement said. “We are deeply sorry that these routine preparations may appear presumptuous, and we apologise to all concerned.”

Prior preparation, however, appears to be a common practice amongst most top-tier universities, according to Deaton and Sen.

Angus Deaton- Princeton

Last year’s winner of the Nobel prize for economics, Scottish economist Angus Deaton, received no prior notification although his academic institution, Princeton University, like NYU, had prepared for a possible announcement.

“Indeed, there is no prior notification. When Princeton proved to be immaculately prepared and ready to roll within a few minutes of the announcement, I wondered, and asked. But they said no, [and added] that they had prepared for five members of the economics department, and would have been ready within minutes for any of us,” Deaton told The Wire.

However, Deaton notes that while there may be no prior announcement, most economists know that there is a window in which the widely anticipated phone call generally comes.

“…There is a window between 6:00 and 6:30 am when the phone call will come. I knew it was ‘that day’ but thought then, as I think now, that there were many possible good choices, so was not expecting the call, though, of course, I knew immediately what it was,” said Deaton.

5 am call for Sen

For Amartya Sen too there was no warning or heads-up.

“I was generally aware that more people had lost money in the previous two years by betting on me at the Berkeley ‘guessing gamble’ (‘who will get the Nobel in Economics this year?’) run by Professor David Roemer than on anyone else,” Sen says. “That was flattering in itself, even if it made me feel a little guilty in not living up to their expectations.”

Sen, who made his name in the field of development economics, however didn’t believe that the Swedish academy was thinking of him. On the day the announcement was made,  Sen, who was Master of Trinity College in Cambridge at the time, had flown into New York for a friend’s memorial meeting.

“I did not think about the prize, nor in fact keep track of the day when it was meant to be announced. The call in my New York hotel at 5 am was very scary, since I thought that some bad thing must have happened to one of the children for me to be called at such an hour, and the telephonist telling me that they were calling from the Swedish Academy brought in relief in my thinking that no news of accident or some other disaster could have come that way.  It was only a minute later when the caller started talking about Alfred Nobel [that] suddenly the penny dropped,” Sen told The Wire.

Nobel announcement on Monday

Nevertheless, the Swedish academy is insisting a decision has not been taken. An official announcement on whether Romer – or indeed, any other deserving economist – will win the Nobel prize will be made at a committee meeting next Monday.

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