Every year on the 10 December – the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death – the city of Stockholm comes alive with celebration for the new Nobel Laureates in Physics, Chemistry and Medicine, as well as Literature and the Prize in Economic Sciences. (The Peace prize is awarded in Oslo – at the time of Nobel's death Sweden and Norway were united under one monarch.)
Those lucky enough to be awarded a Nobel prize experience a rare glimpse of the celebrity lifestyle. The prize ceremony and Nobel banquet are glitzy white-tie events where Laureates and their families meet and dine with royalty, their words become front-page news, and every minute is broadcast live in TV.
Behind the prestige and glamour is the Nobel Foundation, which is responsible for managing Alfred Nobel’s funds in accordance with his will. Nobel may have died in 1896, but the interest on his wealth continues to fund the institutions responsible for choosing the prizes each year – which for medicine is the Karolinska Institute, and for physics, chemistry and economics is the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences.
Since the first Nobel prizes were awarded in 1901, the foundation has seen both science and society change radically, not to mention seeing the odd bit of controversy. On the eve of this year’s festivities, Lars Heikensten, Executive Director of the Nobel Foundation, talked to BBC Future about how they are trying to maintain Alfred Nobel's original vision, and the success of the prizes for years to come.
What is your role at the Nobel Foundation?
I’m not involved in the actual decisions on the prizes, this is done totally independently by the prize-awarding institutions. My main task is to take care of the money left by Alfred Nobel, basically run the system that keeps these prizes together, and deal with the various issues that come up with regards to how our name is used in different contexts. To preserve its name, it is essential that the process of rewarding prizes works really well, and we keep an eye on that – when it comes to processes, we act as a forum for discussion between the institutions that award the prizes.
What’s most important for maintaining the success of the Nobel prizes in the 21st century?
I think that the most essential aspect is that the prize-awarding institutions are doing their job with competence and with integrity, as they have on the whole been doing over the last 110 years. That’s where most of the value lies.
At the same time I am not sure that doing exactly the same, and only that, will be enough in the future, given the way our societies are evolving, and given the reach of the Nobel name. I think it’s also important that we do other activities to communicate with the outside world about what we are doing, what the prizes mean and so on. If you read about Alfred Nobel you can’t avoid the feeling that had he been around, he would have wanted us to do more with the name he created, that I’m fairly sure about. He was an entrepreneur looking for opportunities all the time to make the world better.
Given the economic difficulties, and given the difficulties that we and other people who have been investing over recent decades have had, I can also see a point in us gradually developing these other activities in such a way that we are doing good things in the Nobel spirit and that at the same time earning a certain margin on some of this, to create an economic buffer for the system as a whole. We have been arranging conferences of various kinds on which we can earn a margin via sponsorship, for example. I do not think that we should use Alfred Nobel’s money for these other things, they have to be developed with other kinds of money – donations, entrance fees to museums, government grants, whatever. When we do that we have to be careful that we involve ourselves with partners whom we can trust, whom we believe are in line with our basic aims.