Lars Heikensten interview

“I am convinced that greater openness towards the outside world would be good for the Swedish Academy.”

The Swedish Academy has decided to postpone the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel Foundation supports the decision. Lars Heikensten, Executive Director of the Nobel Foundation, answers some questions concerning this decision:
Lars Heikensten

Photo: Kari Kohvakka

Why will the Nobel Prize in Literature not be awarded in 2018?

“The institution that has selected the Nobel Laureates in Literature since 1901, the Swedish Academy, has been undergoing a crisis of confidence in recent months. The resulting situation has had an adverse effect on the Nobel Prize. By announcing their decision on 4 May, the members of the Academy are showing that they understand the seriousness of the situation and will be giving themselves time to make a number of necessary changes. It is both an unusual and difficult decision not to award a Nobel Prize, but in this situation we believe that the Academy’s decision was for the best and that it will help protect the reputation of the Nobel Prize in the long run.”

What will happen in 2019?

“The Swedish Academy’s goal is to make its decision on the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature and to announce it together with the 2019 prize. We hope that this will be the case, but it depends on the Swedish Academy restoring its trust.”

Will this affect the work on the other prizes?

“No. The Swedish Academy’s decision does not affect the work of selecting laureates for the prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Peace and Economic Sciences. The selection processes for these prizes are handled by other independent institutions: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet and the Norwegian Nobel Committee. They will work as usual in 2018 and award the other prizes as planned.”

Are the different prizes equally important?

“One of the foremost strengths of the Nobel Prize is precisely its unique combination of sciences, humanities and peace efforts. This reflects the genius of Alfred Nobel. All the Prizes are equally important to us. We thus certainly hope that confidence in the Swedish Academy be restored so that the Nobel Prize in Literature can be awarded together with the other prizes next year.”

What does this mean for the Nobel Prize’s global reputation?

“The Swedish Academy’s crisis has had an adverse effect on the Nobel Prize, as we have noted. Internationally the Swedish Academy is to a large extent one-sidedly linked to the Nobel Prize. In Sweden, however, the Nobel Prize is less confused with the Swedish Academy – people make a clearer distinction between the two. It is also more well known that the Swedish Academy and the Nobel Foundation are separate entities with different tasks related to the prize. The role of the Academy is selecting Nobel Laureates in Literature, while the Foundation has overall responsibility for the fulfilment of the will and the position of the Nobel Prize.”

Why has the international media focused strongly on the #MeToo aspects?

“It is true that the international media has focused largely on the #MeToo-related aspects. In a way this is not surprising since the crisis began with allegations of sexual harassment directed at a person closely linked to the Swedish Academy, but not himself a member. Because the consequences were not dealt with well by the Swedish Academy, the situation erupted. As the crisis evolved other issues have been given more focus in the Swedish debate, such as the conflicts between the individuals involved and more structural, organisational issues that need to be dealt with, related to, for example, rules on confidentiality and conflicts of interest.

One of the fundamental values underlying the Nobel Prize is to strongly reject all forms of harassment and inequality. The links to the #MeToo aspects thus makes it even more important to deal with the issues at hand and regain trust.”

What will be required to restore confidence in the Swedish Academy?

“The Swedish Academy must be able to report what concrete measures are being taken and should get outside help in order to solve their problems. Among other things, they need to reassess compliance with their confidentiality and conflict-of-interest rules. The Nobel Foundation will monitor the Academy’s continued efforts and support them to the extent we can.”

How will you continue working during the year?

“I expect that the work of the Nobel Foundation during the coming year in most respects will unfold as usual. The Foundation is responsible for the financial situation and the position of the Nobel Prize. Our focus is therefore on managing the assets left behind by Alfred Nobel so that Prizes can continue to be awarded in the future. We also have broad public activities based on the achievements of all the Nobel Laureates from 1901 onward. We have greatly increased the presence of the Nobel Prize digitally and internationally, where we reach out to a young and diverse audience. At the same time, we are continuing our work with a new Nobel Center in Stockholm which – based on the Nobel Prize’s unique combination of natural sciences, literature and peace – will do exhibitions, school programmes and lectures about the great issues of our time.”

Why do you think that this situation at the Swedish Academy has occurred?

“There are many causes. The Academy has cultivated a closed culture over a long period of time. This was likely to be challenged at one time or another. Personally, I am convinced that greater openness towards the outside world would be good for the Swedish Academy. It will strengthen the institution long-term and enable it to re-establish confidence. I believe that in the end something good will come out of this situation, even if that of course has not been the feeling during recent weeks.”

How do you perceive the general public’s reception to the Academy’s announcement?

“This is a situation we would prefer to have avoided, but given the current situation in the Swedish Academy, we believe that its decision will help maintain the Nobel Prize’s legacy and reputation in the long run. The major international impact of this story demonstrates the enormous worldwide interest in the Nobel Prize. It also shows that many people think that the Nobel Prize is important. The way the world looks today, I actually feel that the Nobel Prize is more important now than ever before. It is aimed at everyone and stands up for the scientific method, for humanism and international peace efforts.”

Stockholm 2018-05-17

Read Lars Heikensten’s comment on the postponed Literature Prize, 4 October 2018