Interview: Chinese are walking on the right track: Nobel Assembly Secretary Hansson

09:49, December 15, 2009      

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Göran Hansson, Secretary of the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska institutet said that he thinks the Chinese will win many Nobel Prizes in the future. They are on the right track.

Göran Hansson (Right)

He made the remarks recently at the Nobel Forum in Stockholm in an exclusive interview with People's Daily Online on the questions of Nobel Prize evaluation processes and how the Nobel committees deal with controversies in recent years especially this year in the Nobel Peace Prize, literature prize and Economic prize in memory of Alfred Nobel.

Q: Can you briefly tell us how the prizes are evaluated?

Hansson: The entire process of evaluating and deciding who gets the Nobel Prize is done here in Stockholm while the Peace Prize is done in Oslo Norway. The Prize in Physiology or Medicine is done here at the Karolinska Institutet, University of Medicine in Stockholm. The Prizes in Physics and Chemistry are awarded by the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences but the process is similar.

We invited the nominations for the Nobel Prize from universities and scientists all over the world in all the continents except the Antarctic. We get hundreds of nominations every year and lots of suggestions on who should get the Nobel Prize.

Then we evaluate them and identify the most important one in terms of important discovery. Then we look very carefully into the discoveries and find out who made the discovery, then the prize is rewarded to the discovery. It may not be the person who is very famous in the area today. For example, this year's Nobel laureate in medicine are three, one of them was the graduate student (Carol Greider) when she made her big discovery. Then we made the recommendation, identify the strongest case in the year and that recommendation goes to the Nobel Assembly composed of 50 professors who vote the first Monday in October every year. By vote decides who gets the Nobel Prize.

The prizes in chemistry and physics will be recommended by each committee and finally decided by the Royal Academy of Sciences each has about 400 members.

Nobel committees in sciences have a joint meeting every year to discuss research that is of interest for all and it could be candidates for Nobel Prize both in chemistry and medicine.

Q: This year US President Barak Obama won the Nobel Prize in Peace. Both inside and outside Norway, there are critiques. Do you think the Nobel committee faces great pressure? What is your comment on the critique that the prize is somewhat recreational, too hasty or not well examined?

Hansson: All Nobel Prizes create some discussions. And that means there are a lot of interests in Nobel Prizes. Of course the peace prize is often the most debated because most people have opinions about world peace and world politics. It is always difficult with the peace prize. The idea is not only to obtain peace that has been achieved, but also to support movement towards peace. Nobel stated in his testament the will that those who organized peace conference should be awarded. He wanted to promote ongoing peace processes. I think repeatedly the Norwegian Nobel Committee has awarded ongoing attempts to solve the conflict and to obtain peace and sometimes the process did not succeed in the end. But they try to support it. And that was in line with the will of Nobel. Indeed, Norwegian Nobel Committee faces a very difficult task on the whole and I think they did a fantastic job.

Q: Many scholars think the science prizes have been well recognized, but the non science prizes have been controversial. Literature, economics and peace, it may have something to do with sense of value. Has the different sense of value in the east and west affect the prize? One can see more western people win the prize. What is your comment?

Hansson: Literature is part of culture. Looking back in history, it was predominated by the European cultures or European literature. Having said that you have to take into account that during the first part of the 20th century, much of the world was in turmoil, colonialism was existing. There were world wars. There was a time when China was falling apart and then civil wars.

It is worth noting that the Nobel Prize in literature is trying to look into non European cultures from Nigeria to India and Japan. So it is clear that they are looking at that. And my prediction is that the world is becoming more and more together than many years ago. That will go further.

Q: Some people even criticized that the Nobel committee members lack of international outlook, what is your comment about it ? Do you think Nobel committee also needs reform?

Hansson: I think it is unfair if I restrict to science prize , medicine particular, we travel a lot, we have friends and contacts and knowledge around the world, I think it is an unfair criticism. Maybe people find excuses why they didn't get the Nobel prize. On the whole, we are very well received in the international community. Sometimes there is debate whether two people should share one prize while we gave to one.

When Nobel 's will was read, the King of Sweden was very upset 100 years ago about it could go to foreigners. He thought it was very unpatriotic. But then the King lost the debate, and the prize started. And the first winners were not all Swedes and it set the stage. It comes up now and then, Swedish scientists should win more Nobel prize, but we don't look at nationality, we look at individuals and what they have contributed. I think that is the strength of the Nobel prize. It is not the country or the influence of the country big or small, it was not the position of an individual in the country, it is what he or she has accomplished.

The Nobel prizes are controversial maybe because the general public, the journalists and politicians don't know that much about how Chromosomes are handled, how they operated the cells which we awarded this year. But they have very definite opinions about world politics, and often they have a favorite author.

Q: If we use the same amount of money to set up a new prize, do you think the influence will be the same?

Hansson: It is good that there is prizes in other fields. There was request a few months ago from a number of scientists particularly in Great Britain that there should be more Nobel Prizes because other fields would also deserve the fame of the Nobel prize. But we cannot do that. We must follow the laws set up by Nobel's will. But that shows the Nobel prize is important and appreciated as ever. I think it is a very appealing system that the scientific prize has rather absolute criteria.

But maybe it is more difficult to understand for the general public. And then you have the prizes in literature and peace which are more easily understood, which people are always have different opinions about them. Of course the criteria are not as exact as science. I think they benefit from being together with science and the science benefits from being with literature and peace. So it is very good system in that aspect.

This was the first international prize. It is always an advantage to be the first. But we have to do a good job, if we gave wrong scientist, we will get trouble. One more strength is that it has been awarded by two small countries at the corner of the world, that way we were not exposed that much to world politics.

Q: This year's Nobel Prize winners in Economic Sciences still come from the USA which is the source of the global financial crisis, this has confronted with a lot of doubts. Even many Chinese are wondering why the economic power with 1.3 billion people cannot have an economist to win the Nobel Prize? How do you think of these comments?

Hansson: When it comes to the economic prize, first of all, it is not the Nobel Prize to be correct, it is just given out the same time as the Nobel Prize. Economic sciences were developed mainly in the leading economies in the western world. No prize is awarded to a nation. It goes to individuals. So if China lets its scientists and leading intellectuals work independently on the problems they identify as the most important ones with good resources. I think it will pay off.

Q: So it is just a matter of time, then which prize do you think Chinese will win first?

Hansson: I expect China will win a number of Nobel Prize in the future. Which comes first I have no idea. I think it is very admirable how they supported to build up science and recruited scientists coming back from abroad and so on. I expect that will pay off. I mean Japan did it maybe 10 or 15 years ago. And we see now Japanese scientists winning Nobel Prizes last year, it is happening over and over again. India is doing the same thing, it is very impressive building up development of science in India. These countries will be tough competitors to Europe and the US.

It is a matter of time. Looking at China 30 years ago there was no higher education what so ever, it stopped for ten years. And it takes up time to build up again although you have 2000 years of tradition. Time and rules all changed in the world too. So it all takes time, but it is on the right track.

By Xuefei Chen, People's Daily Online, Stockholm.
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