Speech by Professor Carl-Henrik Heldin, Chairman of the Board of the Nobel Foundation, 10 December 2015.
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 the ceremony, which is held to honour the Laureates for their outstanding contributions to science and literature.
Earlier today, in Oslo, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011. The importance of democracy for peace and prosperity cannot be overestimated. It is rare that fully democratic countries go to war against each other.
Today we celebrate here discoveries that have demonstrated that the neutrino, a common but tiny elementary particle, can change identity and have mass; discoveries that have elucidated a sophisticated machinery capable of repairing our DNA, without which life would not be possible; and discoveries that have identified new treatments for parasitic diseases and malaria, which are saving millions of lives. We also celebrate literature that in a polyphonic manner describes sufferings and courage and an important economic analysis of consumption, poverty and welfare.
Alfred Nobel’s vision was that the Prizes he established would reward those who have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind, that is, those who have contributed to making the world a better place to live in. Alfred Nobel was a multi-faceted person; he was a skilful chemist and had a laboratory in each of his homes where he performed experiments, he was a clever inventor with 355 patents, and he was an entrepreneur with factories all over the world. Alfred Nobel often expressed frustration over problems related to his business activities, but found comfort and inspiration in research, literature and culture. He was obsessed with the ideals of the Enlightenment and the search for knowledge, and he had a strong belief in fundamental human values. He would probably have reacted strongly to the threats we can see today against rationalism and peaceful interactions between people from different cultures.
He would probably also be sad to learn that the nationalism and xenophobia that characterised the latter part of the 19th century when he lived, still prevail in today’s Europe − with profound consequences, for instance the inability of European societies to deal with the ongoing refugee tragedy.
Some of the scientific discoveries we celebrate today have already proved to be extraordinarily useful for mankind in the treatment of certain diseases.These examples illustrate that research can solve many problems and contribute to a better world. Other discoveries can be characterised as basic research, and even if their practical usefulness is not obvious for the moment, these findings are likely directly or indirectly to be proved useful in the future. Scientific history is full of examples of curiosity-driven basic research leading to discoveries that have unexpected usefulness, sometimes in new and different areas. Moreover, even if a discovery cannot be used to solve problems of different types, new knowledge about our universe, nature, our society and ourselves has an intrinsic value and provides an essential contribution to the development of a better society.
The importance of knowledge as such was nicely formulated by the physicist Robert Wilson. In 1969, he was questioned by a Congressional committee about funding for the accelerator that was to become the Fermi National Laboratory in the US. He was asked: “Will this accelerator contribute to the defence of the country?” Wilson’s reply was: “I do not think so, but it will make the country more worth defending.” Investment in research is an investment in the future, an investment for a better world.
The quality of future research is dependent on the recruitment of young talents to science. High-quality education at all levels is necessary, so that young people can prepare themselves for a scientific career, and we need to find ways to encourage them to become scientists. Here we need to do more, both in Sweden and in other countries. The growing consensus on the need to upgrade our school system and to pay teachers what they deserve should result in decisions and positive changes. Hopefully the discoveries by the Nobel Laureates can help to increase interest in education and science and inspire young talents to be engaged in research. We have to convey to young people that science is not only important, it is also rewarding and fun.
The Nobel Prize awarding institutions have made the Prizes what they are today. With independence and competence, for more than 100 years they have bestowed the Nobel Prize on 900 Laureates. The outstanding contributions of these persons to science, literature and peace − as well as their stories and lives − serve as an inspiration to us all.
The stories of the Nobel Laureates and their achievements are therefore well worth telling. These are often stories about strong conviction and courage. To tell these stories we are reaching out through our digital channels, whose global engagement is continuously increasing. Our museums in Stockholm and Oslo attract more visitors each year, many of them school children. In addition, interdisciplinary events are organised in order to promote and deepen the dialogue between science and society in general. During these events a wider audience and students can meet and discuss topics of general interest with leading scientists, many of whom are Nobel Laureates. During the past year, such dialogues were organised for the first time outside Scandinavia − starting in Tokyo and very recently in Singapore.
The planned Nobel Center in the heart of Stockholm will make it possible to even more efficiently promote the vision of Alfred Nobel. The Nobel Center will be a civic building and a public meeting place focusing on science, literature and peace. During the past year, important steps have been taken to make this Center a reality. Generous donations have been obtained, which will cover the cost of the building, and a revised plan has been submitted for approval by the City of Stockholm. We trust that when it opens, the Nobel Center will be a place where scientists and visitors from all over the world, and especially young people, will be inspired by the discoveries and contributions of the Nobel Laureates for “the greatest benefit to mankind”.Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2015