Opening address

The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony 2018

Speech by Professor Carl-Henrik Heldin, Chairman of the Board of the Nobel Foundation, 10 December 2018.

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

On behalf of the Nobel Foundation, it is a great pleasure for me to welcome you all to this year’s Nobel Prize Award Ceremony. In particular, I would like to welcome the Nobel Laureates and their families to this ceremony.

Earlier today, in Oslo, Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.

Through this prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee reminds us that human rights must include the rights of women. Too often, women have been violated in conflicts as a way of disrupting a society. Words cannot describe the horrors that Nadia Murad has lived through − but we should be grateful that she has decided to share her story with us as a call for action. Dr Denis Mukwege has likewise shown exceptional courage and persistence when he, at great personal risk, has alleviated the suffering of so many women in the Congo.

Alfred Nobel’s  vision was to reward those who have made the greatest benefits to humankind, in science, literature and peace, and thereby have contributed to a better world. Undoubtedly the world has, in many ways become a better place since the end of the 19th century when Alfred Nobel lived.

However, in recent years, we have unfortunately seen new dangerous tendencies on the rise. While the Paris Agreement is a sign that the question of global warming is being taken seriously, it is deeply worrying that influential world leaders are denying the connection, backed by overwhelming scientific evidence, between our lifestyle and climate change and preventing the necessary actions from being taken.

Also in other fields, we see that facts, observations and information are distorted or ignored. We see how nationalism and isolationism are increasing − with restrictions in trade, cultural exchange and movement across borders. Together this endangers the world as we know it.

Science offers a countermovement to the isolationistic and fact-resistant tendencies we see. It has no borders and scientists often move between countries. Science is our time’s lingua franca, and can form bridges between countries and cultures. The importance of research is therefore not only limited to the generation of new knowledge, but it serves a more general role providing a common ground for interactions between people all over the world. Moreover, modern science does not only involve sceptical inquiry, but is also often led by an ethos of openness and tolerance.

Today we do not only celebrate the Nobel Prize. It is also 70 years ago that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations and 50 years since René Cassin received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the declaration. This serves to remind us that one of the reasons that modern society has progressed is that it has created a set of institutions and legal instruments that formalises progress. Human rights are one of these, as is science and democracy.

But again, we cannot take these institutions and instruments for granted. We are all aware of the increasing questioning of universal human rights, freedom of speech and academic independence, all values closely connected with what the Nobel Prize stands for. This is deeply troubling, since we risk a regression to a time before they existed − to a time ruled by ignorance, prejudice and barbarism.

The now more than 900 Nobel Laureates and their achievements are a source of inspiration to us all. Via well-visited museums in Stockholm and Oslo, various events in different countries, and through our digital channels with millions of followers, we are reaching out all over the globe to tell their stories. To further enhance our outreach activities, we have been working hard, with support from the Erling-Persson Family Foundation and the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation and many other donors, to achieve a Nobel Center in the heart of Stockholm. We would like to take this opportunity to thank them, as well as the architects David Chipperfield and Christoph Felger for their support and commitment. Despite the setback we now have had, with the decisions taken by the new ruling majority in Stockholm, we are prepared to continue  to  work  for this idea. It is simply too good to be stopped. However, given what has happened we have to be clear. If Stockholm is going to get a Nobel Center, strong, concrete and reliable support from the City of Stockholm, as well  as from the government of Sweden, will be needed.

Scientific breakthroughs of the kind we honour today are fostered by creating strong environments and by giving excellent scientists freedom, independence and long-term funding. Such creative milieus become fertile for new ideas through being open to a diversity of skills, experiences and cultural backgrounds − and through letting young scientist speak their mind.

In strong scientific environments, the focus is often on basic research, that is, curiosity-driven research, which does not aim at solving a particular practical problem, but only aims at answering interesting and important questions. Max Planck, the 1918 Nobel Laureate in Physics, went  so far as to say “Scientific discovery and scientific knowledge have been achieved only by those who have gone in pursuit of it without any practical purpose whatsoever in view”. Remarkably, however, many basic research discoveries have later on been proven to have practical usefulness, sometimes in unexpected areas. In this way, advances in basic science becomes part of the progress that Alfred Nobel wished to see. The production of new knowledge thus joins the struggle for human rights in these awards − which we hope can inspire, in particular young people, to make even more remarkable contributions “for the benefit of humankind.”

Thank you for listening, and once again, most welcome to this year’s Nobel Prize Award Ceremony!

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2018