Speech by Professor Carl-Henrik Heldin, Chairman of the Board of the Nobel Foundation, 10 December 2013.
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Esteemed Nobel Laureates, Ladies and Gentlemen,
On behalf of the Nobel Foundation, I would like to welcome you to this year’s Nobel Prize Award Ceremony. In particular, I would like to welcome the Nobel Laureates and their families to this ceremony, which is held to honour the Laureates for their outstanding contributions to science and literature. We send our warmest greetings to Alice Munro, who was unable to come to Stockholm.
Earlier today, in Oslo, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons.
Despite considerable progress in recent decades, mankind faces important global challenges; people still die because of poverty or hunger, many suffer from diseases of various kinds, accelerating global warming is worrisome, it is difficult to produce energy in an environmentally-friendly manner, and there is considerable turbulence in economic markets. The solutions to these problems include better organisation and governance of society, and fairer distribution of the earth’s resources. However, research is also of the utmost importance. Targeted programmes are needed to address specific problems. But it is also important to support basic research which has no other purpose than to answer questions, since experience has shown that such curiosity-driven research often leads to results that can be used within other, completely different and unexpected areas.
This year’s Prize in Physics is being awarded for the theory how particles obtain their mass, which was recently confirmed by experiments at CERN in Geneva. This knowledge is of profound importance for the understanding of how the universe is constructed. This year’s Chemistry Prize is being awarded for the development of multi-scale models for complex chemical systems. The new methods make it possible to use computers to describe chemical reactions, for instance during photosynthesis in green leaves. This year’s Prize in Physiology or Medicine is being awarded for discoveries of how the cell organises transport of different molecules to those places where they are needed to perform their functions. When these studies were carried out, their purpose was only to answer interesting questions, but the results that were obtained have also given us increased insights into the mechanisms behind various diseases. The Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel is being awarded for new insights into how the price of securities can be predicted; insights that have had clear practical applications.
The breakthroughs in research that we are honouring today can, in several cases, be regarded as basic research. In a similar way, basic research discoveries have often been awarded Nobel Prizes in previous years. Although the step between basic research and practical applications can sometimes be long, new knowledge is always valuable, and sooner or later such knowledge will become useful. In fact, some of the most important breakthroughs in science, which have led to important applications, were achieved by scientists who – when they made their discoveries – did not aim at solving a particular problem, but only tried to answer questions they found interesting. One example is the discovery of the laser, which has led to applications we have daily use of in the form of CD players, laser writers and bar code scanners. Another example is the elucidation of the structure of the DNA molecule and how it mediates heredity, which not only forms the basis for all genetic research, but also has allowed improved methods for diagnosis and treatment of various diseases.
As a result of the economic problems the world is now experiencing, many countries have chosen to reduce their support for research. This is unfortunate. Today, it is more important than ever to continue and even increase support for research, in particular for basic research. In this context, the newly established European Research Council (ERC) is a beam of light here in Europe. ERC supports basic research in all areas of science with excellence as the only evaluation criterion. Fortunately, ERC’s budget will increase during the coming seven-year period.
Alfred Nobel was a broad-minded person. He realised that mankind is not only in need of progress within scientific disciplines, but also needs culture and a peaceful world. Cross-fertilisation between science and culture enriches both sides. It goes without saying that one prerequisite to making scientific progress useful for mankind is a peaceful world. Together with the scientific Prizes, the Prizes in Literature and Peace form a totality that has significantly contributed to the unique position of the Nobel Prize.
Global challenges are best addressed through international cooperation. Science and scientists know no national borders. Alfred Nobel himself was a true internationalist. He lived, performed research and developed businesses in many countries, and he travelled a lot. It is notable that several of this year’s Nobel Laureates – like many previous Laureates – work in countries other than those where they were born and raised. Alfred Nobel understood that talents are present and need to be encouraged in all parts of the world, and he specifically stipulated in his will 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 Scandinavian or not”. This was not an obvious choice at the end of the 19th century which, just like our present time, was characterised by nationalism and xenophobia.
The ideas of Alfred Nobel encountered scepticism and resistance in many circles. But this did not prevent the Nobel Prize from becoming one of the first truly international scientific prizes. Alfred Nobel’s insight that the prize he established should be international right from the start, together with the careful work of the award committees, has been and is a prerequisite for the prestige the Nobel Prize enjoys.
The more than 100-year-long history of the Nobel Prize is a rich source of information and inspiration. The Nobel museums in Stockholm and Oslo have large numbers of visitors. During the past year, plans to build a new home for the Nobel Prize in Stockholm have taken important steps forward. This is gratifying. A nicely located site on the Blasieholmen peninsula has been offered by the City of Stockholm and generous donations have been obtained from the Erling-Persson Family Foundation and the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation. An architectural competition has been initiated and the winning proposal will be selected during the coming spring. The Nobel Center is expected to be completed by 2018. It will contain public spaces for exhibitions, programme activities, scientific conferences, meetings and events. This is where we intend the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony to take place in the future.
At the Nobel Center, the focus will be on the stories of the Nobel Laureates. These are stories of brilliant discoveries, conviction and persistence. They are stories which prove that ideas can change the world. The Nobel Center will be a place that engages and awakens curiosity – a place where school pupils and young people, scientists and visitors from all over the world can meet and be inspired by the Laureates and their contributions to the greatest benefit to mankind.Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2013