2002 Opening Address

by Professor Bengt Samuelsson, Chairman of the Board of Directors, The Nobel Foundation

Bengt Samuelsson

Professor Bengt Samuelsson
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2002
Photo: Hans Mehlin

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

On behalf of the Nobel Foundation, I welcome you to this year’s Prize Award Ceremony. We would especially like to welcome this year’s Laureates to the Nobel Festivities in Stockholm. We congratulate you for your important achievements in different fields. You have thereby increased collective human knowledge and contributed to the respect and prestige that the Nobel Prize enjoys. Earlier today the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in Oslo to Jimmy Carter, former president of the United States.

Today’s science is highly international in character. Sometimes this is portrayed, like other forms of international exchange, as some new phenomenon within the framework of the all-embracing, but not always meaningful concept of “globalization.” In reality, international scientific exchange has a very long history. In the West, it goes back to the culture of antiquity. Looking at the first centuries of modern science, the 17th and 18th centuries, scientific progress was driven by successive contributions from scientists in different countries. The academies that emerged during this period not only coordinated the researchers in their own nation, but became important intermediaries for international scientific cooperation.

The man who came up with the idea of establishing scientific academies was the statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon. He understood that the new scientific breakthroughs of the early 17th century could be utilized to improve the human condition on earth. The pacesetter was the Royal Society in London, which soon after being founded in 1660 began to publish a scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions. In this way, it established an ethic and tradition for the announcement of scientific advances. The publication of scientific findings became a method for scientists to gain recognition as the originators of discoveries and ideas. At the same time, the results they presented could be subjected to questioning or confirmation. Even today, this review mechanism plays an important role in discovering incorrect results and statements.

Scientific values and democratic principles have a lot in common. In science, transparency and honesty are highly valued. Dissenting views are considered a natural element of the process that leads to new knowledge. This is a never-ending process. The same values apply in a democracy. Shimon Peres, the Israeli statesman and Nobel Peace Laureate, has expressed this as follows:

“Science and lies cannot coexist. You don’t have a scientific lie, and you cannot lie scientifically. Science is basically the search for truth – known, unknown, discovered, undiscovered – and a system that does not permit the search for truth cannot be a scientific system. Then again, science must operate in freedom. … So in a strange way, science carries with it a color of transparency, of openness, which is the beginning of democracy …”

International scientific cooperation has developed vigorously over the past few centuries and exists today on a previously undreamed-of scale, thanks to new methods of communication. At the same time, intensive international competition is taking place in a number of research fields where significant breakthroughs can be anticipated. Take as examples the fields of bioscience, information technology and nanotechnology. Here, too, there are superb precedents, for example the competition that took place in the 18th century to be the first to identify a method for determining longitude. Quite a few impressive observatory buildings in the capitals of Western Europe are relics of this race.

Today it is increasingly evident that a country’s investments in science are a good indicator of its future growth and productivity. The mathematician, philosopher and author Bertrand Russell expressed it as follows in the mid-20th century: “Almost everything that distinguishes the modern world from earlier centuries is attributable to science.”

In a global perspective, world research and development is heavily concentrated in the “G7” countries. In this group, the United States alone accounts for more than half. And the gaps are tending to widen, because the countries with the largest relative research and development efforts – the U.S., Japan and certain smaller EU countries – are stepping up their programs faster than other countries. But ambitious investments in China and especially South Korea in recent years demonstrate that this relative positioning can change. Meanwhile it has also become increasingly clear what a crucial role basic research plays for the entire innovation system, and thus for the “knowledge-based economy” and for the potential of various countries to attract business investments. There is thus reason for many countries to critically examine their support to basic research.

In order to take advantage of the world’s scientific and technical knowledge base, every country needs to build up its own scientific competency. This fact is especially relevant to developing countries. Both on an individual and an institutional basis, researchers have begun to build up relationships with their colleagues in poor countries, in order to find ways of applying research to sustainable development.

The United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa a few months ago resulted in a 65-page plan of implementation, in which more than a hundred governments agreed to work together to protect the environment and reduce poverty in the world. Scientists who participated in the meeting felt that, although the role of science was not included in the political summation of the meeting, the action plan discusses the role of research collaboration with developing countries. They also believed that science had improved its position, since scientists from different disciplines and organizations played a prominent role at the Johannesburg meeting, unlike the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro ten years earlier.

Another aspect of research and knowledge policy that has been emphasized recently is the need for a greater degree of integration between the sciences and humanities, in order to bridge the gap between these two cultures. As Economics Laureate Herbert A. Simon writes in his essay “Creativity in the Arts and Sciences,” increased knowledge of “the other culture” is important both to individual creativity and the opportunities for citizens to form opinions on important democratic decisions. The Renaissance man stands out as an ideal here. And in this context, one can note that through his choice of prize fields, Alfred Nobel points in the same direction, with a combination of science, literature and involvement in the fortunes of the world.

Honoured Laureates, after having received your Prizes from His Majesty the King, you will soon become a part of the history of the Nobel Prizes. But even earlier, through your extraordinarily important contributions, you have inscribed your names in the history of science and culture. To use the words of Alfred Nobel, you have “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2002