A Peek Inside the Ig Nobel Prize Selection Committee Process

Northern Short-tailed Shrew (blarina brevicauda) © 2007 by Gilles Gonthier
Northern Short-tailed Shrew (blarina brevicauda) © 2007 by Gilles Gonthier

It’s unfortunate that the workings of the Ig Nobel Prize Selection Committee are off-limits to outside observers.  Unfortunate but necessary, as adding observers (let alone cameras) would spoil the atmosphere, which can be funny, fascinating, and contentious.

But occasionally there is a story from the meetings that should be told.

The committee was assembled and was considering a particular nomination.  Two of us thought that it might be too soon to award that research an Ig Nobel prize since it was so similar to the dead shrew paper.  The room seemed a little confused, obviously not knowing what we meant by “The Dead Shrew Paper” and so we described how researchers had eaten a dead shrew, whole, and then carefully observed over the next several days what parts were lost during digestion; much more was lost during digestion than previously believed.

We described all this, watching the faces of our fellow committee members contort as they listened and understood.

As the reactions died down, Marc noted that we had never actually given this paper an Ig.  My colleague and I were amazed: how had we never given THAT an Ig?  We were both so completely convinced that it had gotten one – probably because it deserved one and because we have both been involved for enough years that it’s hard to keep track of all the near-misses.

Now that we knew it had never won, we were ready to push for it!  We found the paper in the files and gave the room more details (again, enjoying the effect our descriptions were having).

Marc went around the room with this question, “if we give a prize to only one of these two papers, which would you choose?” The room went overwhelmingly for the dead shrew, and the other paper was moved to a list of strong candidates to be considered another year.  The “Dead Shrew Paper” was moved to the list of strong contenders under consideration for 2013. About a month later, at the next meeting, it made the final cut

Northern Short-tailed Shrew (blarina brevicauda) © 2011 by Gilles Gonthier
Northern Short-tailed Shrew (blarina brevicauda) © 2011 by Gilles Gonthier

Improbable Research