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Building on Nobel's legacy

The executive director of The Nobel Foundation, Lars Heikensten, sheds light on the future challenges for the Nobel Prize, the most prestigious honour for intellectual achievement.

'Alfred Nobel wanted to get a better world, he wanted to stimulate people to do good things, meaningful things, within those areas. So that has been sort of the driving force behind the Prizes.'

WHEN scientists announced on Feb 11 that they have detected gravitational waves - confirming a phenomenon first predicted by Albert Einstein 100 years ago and opening up a whole new world for astronomy - observers declared the landmark discovery to be a shoo-in for a Nobel Prize.

Some 120 years after Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel - inventor of dynamite and holder of 355 patents - wrote his last will leaving most of his wealth to funding a series of awards for "those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind", in the areas of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and for "fraternity between nations" (better known as the Peace Prize), the Nobel Prize remains the most prestigious honour for intellectual achievement. In 1969, close to 70 years after the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, Sveriges Riksbank, Sweden's central bank, created the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

And the Nobel aura has remained strong even though there is now a host of other international top-notch prizes in the various fields - and despite a 20 per cent cut in the Nobel Prize money in 2012 to 8 million Swedish kronor (around US$945,000).

Universal character

Lars Heikensten, executive director of The Nobel Foundation, a private institution established in 1900 to manage the finances and administration of the Prizes, cites the history and "universal character" of the Nobel Prize for its strong standing.

"From the beginning, when it was established in 1901, the size of the prize was, in money terms, quite an important factor," he says.

In his will, Nobel left 31 million kronor - equivalent to about US$260 million in today's terms - to be invested to fund the Prizes, which in the early years amounted to about 150,000 kronor each.

"If you correct for inflation in Sweden, the prize is now more or less the same as it was then, in the early 1900s," says Dr Heikensten, who was a central banker before he joined the Foundation in 2011.

"But it was also the fact that it was a universal prize. There were other important prizes, in Britain, France, etc, but they were only open to people from their own countries; here was a prize that could go to anyone."

And a major reason for the Nobel brand's "absolutely astonishing reach", he adds, is its history.

"And when it comes to history, one aspect is competence - the fact that all these years, generally speaking, people feel that the prizes have been given to the right people. Of course, there has been a mistake now and then, and when it comes to the Peace Prize, for example, there will always be a discussion," he says wryly, with a little chuckle.

Indeed, the Nobel Prizes - for Peace in particular, but also Literature - have seen controversy and drama over the years, and there seems to be a general consensus about some of the more contentious decisions: for instance, the awarding of the Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger (1973), Yasser Arafat (1994), Barack Obama (2009), and the omission of Mahatma Gandhi, who, according to official Nobel information, had been nominated 12 times between 1937 and 1948.

Then again, the Nobel Peace Prize has been given to 129 laureates - including 23 organisations - between 1901 and 2015, and the record overall has been good, in Dr Heikensten's view, considering the rather tricky arena of "peace".

"I think that the integrity that has been applied, so that people feel sure that the system is not giving other considerations - political considerations, personal (connections), corruption, this kind of things - I think that's also very important. I can tell you an example."

He relates how - soon after he had been appointed to the job at The Nobel Foundation in 2011 but before he actually started work - he had been "invited for a cup of tea" with the Dalai Lama who was visiting Stockholm. Before Dr Heikensten "had the chance to say anything", the Dalai Lama - who had received the Peace Prize in 1989 - started thanking him.

"You have to imagine me sitting there and not even having started the job and there you have the Dalai Lama saying 'thank you' to you," he laughs. "But his point was that, time and again he felt that the Nobel authorities have been giving prizes without taking political considerations, and in his case of course it was him getting the prize. Of course, it wasn't new because this was the year (after) Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident, got the (Peace) Prize. "And then you have the case of (German writer and anti-Nazi socialist) Carl von Ossietzky, who got the (Peace) Prize in 1935 .... The Germans got extremely upset and it was a big crisis in Norway, and Hitler demanded that Germans (henceforth) could not accept Nobel prizes. But the Nobel authorities continued to give prizes to Germans ... so the independence and integrity is an important aspect of the Prizes."

In the other fields, Dr Heikensten points to the 1949 award of the Medicine Prize to Portuguese neurologist Antonio Egas Moniz for his work on lobotomy as one that would not have happened today. But while there could be a fear of making a mistake in the Prizes, it's a matter of a balance, he says.

"If you only think that we should not make mistakes, you do risk that you lose some people - they die before you realise how important (their work) was." Nobel Prizes cannot be awarded posthumously, unless the death occurred after the award was announced. (In 2011, the Nobel authorities did not know that one of the Medicine laureates that year, Ralph Steinman, had died three days before the award was announced.)

Dr Heikensten cites the "beautiful" 2010 award to English physiologist Robert G Edwards, the man behind the world's first test-tube baby.

"He was instrumental in starting artificial insemination, this has changed lives for thousands of people who can now have children who couldn't before, and he had been a candidate for a long, long time, and he was very old when he got the Prize, which was a little bit sad because he couldn't come himself (for the awards ceremony); his family came. The (Nobel) committee was asked by an angry journalist - 'Why didn't you give him the prize earlier?' (It was) explained that - 'Well, we felt that we needed to see that women who had been born out of artificial insemination also could get children themselves. That was the demonstration of, at least in that case, how careful (the selection is)."

In his will, Alfred Nobel specified the institutions that would select the laureates in each category : The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for Physics and Chemistry; Karolinska Institutet for Physiology or Medicine; the Swedish Academy for Literature, and a committee appointed by the Storting, the Norwegian Parliament, for the Peace Prize. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences also picks the Economics laureates.

Integrity of the Nobel Peace Prize

On Feb 6, in the wake of a growing research fraud scandal in Sweden surrounding thoracic surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, a Nobel official resigned from his post in the Nobel Assembly - a group of 50 Karolinska professors who pick the Physiology/Medicine laureates - and in the five-member Nobel Committee. Geneticist Urban Lendahl, who was secretary-general in both groups, asked to resign "out of respect for the integrity of the Nobel Prize work" as he expected to be involved in the Macchiarini probe, having been one of the professors who had recommended hiring the surgeon at Karolinska in 2010.

In a statement on Prof Lendahl's resignation, Dr Heikensten noted that "mistakes have been made in the handling of the Macchiarini case which have harmed the reputation of ... the Karolinska Institutet". He added : "Even though the Nobel Assembly is independent of the Karolinska Institutet, the case may affect the way the Nobel Prize is perceived."

In all, the Nobel Prizes, including the Economics Prize, have to date been awarded 573 times to 870 people and 23 organisations since 1901. Only 48 of the winners have been women, with Marie Curie honoured twice, for Physics in 1903 and for Chemistry in 1911.

One year into his job, Dr Heikensten undertook to cut the Prize money in 2012, from 10 million to 8 million kronor, "because over a period of 10 years, we had systematically been earning less money than we had been spending", he tells The Business Times during a visit in November. "I came in new and I thought we needed to do something about that. Now I can safely say that the last three years we have earned substantially more money than we're spending, yes," he laughs.

"But we still do not think that it is time to raise it, because if you take a really long-term perspective - and we do; I mean, we're in this forever - then we want to have capital which is even stronger before we run away and take the prize up. The risk with taking it up is that we have to take it down again ... a lot depends on what happens in the financial markets."

But while the Nobel coffers are healthy, Dr Heikensten has concerns about the future.

"I don't think that the kind of returns that one has been able to get during the last decades will be available in the coming decades," he says. "Another aspect is - the incomes of people likely to become Nobel laureates are rising, and rising quite a bit. And if you want the Prize to be of importance, let's say relative to their wages, which I think one should strive for ... it used to be 25 times the yearly wages of a professor perhaps; now it is 10 times. And there are new prizes coming up, all the time, that are fairly big. So there is a long-term challenge."

The Nobel Foundation has received "a few" donations over the years but not "major" sums, he says. "We live basically on the money that Alfred Nobel left; 5-6 per cent of the capital over these 115 years emanates from other sources. Yes, I think that we have reasons to explore if we can get more donations thereby improving our economic level, so to say, because I believe that we could be on safer ground in the long term, absolutely."

Dr Heikensten was in Singapore for the global premiere of the Nobel Prize Series as part of its outreach to raise engagement in science, literature and peace, in line with Alfred Nobel's vision. The new platform featured a conference, public lectures, a roundtable, an exhibition and various social activities, all around the theme "The Future of Learning".

"Alfred Nobel wanted to get a better world, he wanted to stimulate people to do good things, meaningful things, within those areas. So that has been sort of the driving force behind the Prizes," says Dr Heikensten, speaking to BT at the side of the event.

The activities around the core mission have grown over the last 20 years with the setting up of entities such as the Nobel Museum and Nobel Media to "help spread the knowledge and also encourage, stimulate people, by discussing the important issues of our time, by telling the stories about the laureates, often involving them", he notes. "We hope to help achieve what Nobel wanted to achieve."

On newer initiatives like the Nobel Prize Series, he says the Foundation has over recent years picked potential host countries, taking into account the educational and scientific interests in the country; the potential to finance the event; the potential regional outreach and impact.

"We also give consideration to the politics - there are some countries that we feel are too far away from our values for us to be involved with, and we've had discussions with different countries and different partners, and this (Nobel Prize Series Singapore) came about fairly quickly."

As for the "Future of Learning" theme, "I think that the whole idea of what is knowledge is changing", he says. "If I take something rather simple: We all had to learn how to multiply in school. I have to admit that my kids - perhaps not my daughter who's doing dissertation work in Economics but my two sons - I don't think they are at all as good as I was in calculating in their heads! And they probably don't need to. I tell them they need to be a little bit better because they need to be able to bargain in the market, you know," he laughs.

"So, that very simple example of why all this knowledge is changing, that I think in turn leads to various philosophical questions that might have great impact if we have more and more artificial intelligence taking over from human intelligence ... what does that imply for our societies?"

New Nobel Centre

Meanwhile, the more immediate project at hand is the upcoming Nobel Center, the new home of the Nobel Prize, scheduled to open its doors in 2019.

To be built on a waterfront site in Stockholm's historic district, the new city attraction is billed as a place that will engage, inspire and stimulate curiosity.

"We have not yet tried to really use the power of the Nobel name, the Nobel system, to do something of this scale. We have the Nobel Museum today but that's a fairly small organisation, it has in fact had many more people seeing the exhibitions abroad than in Stockholm but here (Nobel Center) we get the chance to combine (various events) ... you could say we could do the Nobel Prize Series Singapore every week! So yes, it will be a great tourist attraction. The Nobel Prize ceremony will be held there, but not the banquet, which will stay in the City Hall."

Dr Heikensten, 65, who was offered his Nobel role when he was 60, considers himself "very privileged" to be in the job.

"I see other people who are 60 and they are continuing with their old work, perhaps sometimes they are a little bit tired, some even get fired or feel that they have been pushed aside a little bit. Here I get the chance to start with a new challenge and where I feel that I can use what I know, but also that I learn a lot.

"And what's striking is - you have this (Nobel) name, this brand which has, as some would say, absolutely astonishing reach. And even though I knew that, most Swedes know that in some way, but it goes far beyond what I really understood, I think. So there are enormous strengths there, and at the same time there are challenges - we are a very small organisation, we have financial challenges, and we have a world where ... some of the values that we stand for are really challenged. But that also means that there are a lot of things, even though we are in such a good position, there are a lot of things that one can and should do. You have something that's very strong and there's a need for you to develop and push new frontiers."


Executive Director, The Nobel Foundation

1950 Born in Sweden on Sept 13

1974 MSc in Economics, Stockholm School of Economics

1974-1984 Lecturer and Researcher, Stockholm School of Economics

1984 Doctorate in Economics, Stockholm School of Economics

1984-1992 Various positions in Sweden's Ministry of Finance, including Director-General and Head, Economic Affairs Dept; Chief Economist; National Debt Office

1992 -1995 Chief Economist, Handelsbanken

1995-2003 Deputy Governor, Sveriges Riksbank

2003-2005   Governor, Sveriges Riksbank

2006-2010 Swedish Member of the European Court of Auditors, Luxembourg

Since May 2011 Executive Director, The Nobel Foundation

Also held appointments in the European Union's Economic and Financial Committee; General Council of the European Central Bank; Board of the Bank of International Settlements; and as Swedish Governor at the International Monetary Fund