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Opening Address

Speech by Dr Marcus Storch, Chairman of the Board of the Nobel Foundation, 10 December 2010.

Dr Marcus Storch delivering the opening address
Dr Marcus Storch delivering the opening address during the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall.
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2010
Photo: AnnaLisa B. Andersson

 

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Honoured Laureates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the Nobel Foundation, I would like to welcome you to this year’s Nobel Prize Award Ceremony. I would especially like to welcome the Laureates and their families to this ceremony, whose purpose is to honour the Laureates and their contributions to science and literature. We send our warmest greetings to Professor Robert Edwards, who was unable to come to Stockholm due to his health. At the same time, we are pleased that Mrs Ruth Edwards is with us today.

Earlier today in Oslo the Peace Prize Laureate, Liu Xiaobo, who could not be present, was honoured "for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China".

Early in 1897 the leading French newspaper Le Temps, predecessor of today’s Le Monde, published a major article about the new Nobel Prize. The article appeared only a few months after Alfred Nobel’s will had been opened and several years before the intentions of the will began to be realised, with the awarding of the first prizes in 1901. The plans for this new prize had attracted very great attention internationally, and one can ask what caused this interest. After all, prestigious prizes had existed for a long time: in the United Kingdom, in the form of the Royal Society’s awards; in France, the Académie des Sciences awarded prizes, later followed by the Preussische Akademie in Berlin. Indeed, even in the young United States, there had been a prestigious Benjamin Franklin Medal since the 1820s. What made the new Nobel Prize so interesting, even though it would be awarded in two peripheral, poor small countries at the edge of Europe, was that it was perceived as the first genuinely international prize in the cultural field, in its own way equivalent to the revival of the Olympics in the field of sports. In this spirit, the article in Le Temps already speculated about which Frenchmen might defend the tricolore and become medallists in this intellectual arena.

The basis of the Nobel Prize − the will of Alfred Nobel − reflects both his personal interests and his philosophical value system, shaped by the cultural radicalism of the Enlightenment and by 19th century optimism about technical and scientific progress. One can also say that the Prize acquired special stature because of its specific combination of prize areas, which reinforce each other and symbolically convey the values of the Enlightenment and humanism. But what is completely crucial, and fundamental to the international standing of the Prize even today, is the passage where Alfred Nobel says that "It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not." In this way, he sent a powerful signal in opposition to that era’s increasing, militant and militarised nationalism, a phenomenon that led to the two devastating world wars that came to dominate the 20th century.
 
It is worth mentioning that Nobel’s will was by no means greeted with unanimous enthusiasm in Sweden. Social Democratic politician Hjalmar Branting, later prime minister, felt that the Prize was a way for a capitalist to soothe his bad conscience, but a quarter century later Branting had no objections when he himself received the Peace Prize. In right-wing nationalist circles, Nobel was accused of a lack of patriotism, since large sums of money would go to foreigners. King Oscar II himself tried to intervene in the dispute that arose about the will, on behalf of the side that wanted it declared invalid. For various reasons, the prize-awarding institutions were hesitant about shouldering their role in the system that Nobel had outlined in his will. But after the Storting − the Norwegian Parliament − had accepted its task of appointing the Peace Prize committee at an early stage, negotiations were concluded step by step and the first prizes were awarded in 1901. Since then, through their work and their far-flung networks, the prize-awarding institutions have consolidated the international standing of the Prize and its internationalist message. 

So much for history.
In the field of science, one recurring question is how much resources should go towards basic research and how much towards applied research and pure development. Obviously all of these areas are of crucial importance. No simple linear model from basic research to applied research to technical development is a viable explanation for much more complex relationships and connections. But the role and ambitions of the public sector have changed. After the Second World War, remnants of the way totalitarian regimes had controlled research caused dismay, and basic research enjoyed great freedom. This co-existed with a gradual increase in needs-based research, initially in the armed forces, but later increasingly in other fields where public sector commitments were growing. In recent decades, however, basic research in a number of countries has been squeezed by the education explosion at universities and by the increasing role of externally controlled resources. In addition, political leaders have deemed themselves capable of assessing the direction in which basic research, too, should be pursued so as to be useful to society, and preferably to yield returns faster. There are two reasons to be somewhat sceptical about such "strategic" investments. The first is that behind such a system is an unspoken assumption that scientists themselves would not be interested in seeing their research lead to useful results. The second is the assumption that politicians possess better knowledge when it comes to "picking the winners". In the first case, obviously scientists are interested in the final results, but the path to genuinely important breakthroughs is longer and more uncertain than can be programmed, and requires more time and resources.     
 
Regarding the usefulness of basic research, as always, reality is a good gauge. Research-intensive international companies indeed seek out those environments that can offer them proximity to basic research at a high level and close to the frontiers of knowledge.

As for letting the public sector pick the winners, experience does not show that politicians and public officials are superior to scientists when it comes to predicting breakthrough areas. For those politicians who are interested in laying the groundwork for research that will lead to Nobel Prizes, it is worth considering that among the Nobel Prizes in the field of natural sciences over the past twenty years – as stated in the autobiographies of the Nobel Laureates − the "free curiosity-driven research" category is heavily predominant.

Sometimes the prize committees are criticised, even by people who should know better, for awarding prizes for complex basic research without practical importance. This year’s prize to Robert Edwards for in vitro fertilisation (IVF) is viewed as commendable because it is regarded as easier to understand. Worth remembering, however, is that Edwards’ basic research on the maturation process of human egg cells is what enabled him to develop IVF. 

Another example of the sometimes unpredictable benefits of basic research is a 1962 Nobel Prize for esoteric research about a remarkable molecule, seemingly without practical importance. But the Prize to Crick, Watson and Wilkins "for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material", today better known as DNA, laid the groundwork for a veritable scientific revolution that has given us many new pharmaceuticals, improved conditions for agriculture, provided entirely new perspectives on the evolutionary history of humanity and placed powerful new tools in the hands of justice.

Why does the vital importance of basic research to humanity receive so little attention, both in the media and from our politicians? Let us not unilaterally accuse the messengers, but instead ask our scientists why they have not been successful in conveying the importance of basic research. The scientific Nobel Prizes may perhaps be viewed as Alfred Nobel’s contribution to explaining the value of research to humanity. This − together with the Prizes in literature and peace − is at the heart of Alfred Nobel’s will.

 

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2010
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