The green eyes on the big prize

December 21, 2001

Lobbying to win a Nobel is unseemly and no guarantee of success, but that has not stopped many laureates and prospective laureates from trying.

In 1995, the Nobel prizes' facade of Olympian respectability was ripped apart. The Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published articles alleging corruption in the world's most prestigious academic awards. The paper said that Fidia, an Italian pharmaceuticals company, had paid $9 million to the judges of the medicine prize to make Rita Levi-Montalcini a laureate in 1986. Fidia had been funding Levi-Montalcini's research into nerve growth factors since 1979 and believed a prize would enhance profits from her work, the paper said.

It was sensational stuff. Unfortunately for the prizes' many critics, it seems to have been complete bunkum. A member of the medical committee immediately threatened to sue, and after two weeks Dagens Nyheter published a mumbling retraction, saying that no bribery had taken place.

It is testimony to the prestige of the Nobel prize that the bogus accusations probably did more to establish the name of Dagens Nyheter across the world than more than a century of doughty journalistic effort. There is something irresistible about whispers of scandal and intrigue emanating from an institution that has managed to establish its decisions as "the universal and instantly understood metaphor[s] of supreme achievement", to use the words of Harriet Zuckerman, who has written a book on the prize.

The rumours, and there are many, are made still more mouth-watering by the conduct of the Nobel committees themselves. Four separate institutions - the Swedish Academy (for literature), the Karolinska Institute (for medicine), the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (for physics, chemistry and economics) and a committee of the Norwegian Parliament (for peace) are charged with awarding the prizes, but all are equally secretive. Each appoints a committee of five members to gather nominations from previous winners and eminent persons around the world. The committees refuse to identify any of the nominators or reveal their recommendations. Deliberations are kept under wraps, and all records of what is discussed are sealed in the Nobel vaults for half a century after the event. No shortlist of candidates is ever released, and no oversight or mistake has ever led to the reconsideration of an award.

The result is a set of prizes that appear almost to issue from divine judgement. The arguments and wrangles among judges that lesser awards so frequently allow to spill into the public domain are hidden from sight. The Nobels arrive in a flash of blinding light, telling the world with sweet objectivity who produced the best science, who did the most for peace and who "produced in the field of literature the most distinguished work of an idealistic tendency".

It is all part of the power and mystique of the Nobel, but even a moment's reflection tells us that the reality behind the mask must be different. The committees are made up of humans, and the stakes are incredibly high - not only for the winners but for the countries, institutions and academic disciplines they represent. And is it really possible to compare objectively the finest Chinese poetry with the best US drama and decide both are less worthy than a novel from Africa? Is it possible to measure accurately the latest developments in solid-state physics against those in particle physics?

Nobel history confirms that bias and influence has always played a role in its decision-making. Svante Arrhenius, the great Swedish physical chemist, is credited with excluding astrophysicists from the physics award around 1922 because he felt there was not enough prize money to go around for more "mainstream" disciplines. After failing in an open campaign to change Nobel statutes to exclude the field, Arrhenius and his allies "packed" the Nobel committees to block nominations. Astrophysics did not win an award until 1967.

Arrhenius did not sit on the chemistry committee, but he exercised influence on it through a close ally, Otto Petterson. It was seen as no accident that two of the first three chemistry Nobels went to physical chemists of Arrhenius's ilk. The partisanship that influenced proceedings was neatly expressed in a letter from the German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald to Arrenhius, celebrating the award of the first Nobel to the Dutch physical chemist Jacobus van't Hoff: "It is a very good thing for physical chemistry in Germany; because now the organic chemists are beginning to fear for their hegemony and try everywhere to repress us."

Arrhenius was no aberration. There have always been power brokers. Carl af Wirsen, for instance, occupied a similar role on the early literature committees and saw to it that Zola, Ibsen, Tolstoy and Hardy were the first names on the impressive list of great 20th-century writers not to receive a prize (later to be augmented by Joyce, Woolf and Proust). The great physicist Ernest Rutherford is reported to have demanded that his protégé, James Chadwick, get the prize for discovering the neutron. "I want Jimmy to have it - unshared!" Rutherford said. He got his wish despite the fact that the neutron was first discovered by Frederic and Irene Joliot-Curie. The French poet Saint-John Perse won his 1960 literature prize mainly as a result of the influence of the Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjold, and, more recently, the triumph of the obscure Chinese novelist and dramatist Gao Xingjian in the 2000 literature prize is widely believed to have been the result of enthusiastic lobbying by a Nobel insider.

But woe betide prospective laureates or their backers who try to steer these treacherous waters. Some have succeeded - the poet Pablo Neruda fought fiercely for his literature prize in 1971 - but most do not. A lobbying campaign to get Henry James the literature prize in 1911 failed conspicuously. In 1910, supporters of Henri Poincaré bombarded the physics committee with an unprecedented 34 nominations - Jto no avail. Bill Clinton spectacularly flopped in 2000 when unconfirmed reports hit the newspapers that his aides had contacted two Norwegian public relations executives and a member of the Norwegian Parliament about lobbying to secure the former US president the peace prize for his negotiations in the Middle East. The effort earned Clinton only derision.

The US literary critic Alexander Coleman has suggested a new academic discipline for those determined to understand the machinations of the Nobel committee: just as Kremlinology deciphered the obscure power-broking within the Soviet regimes of the postwar period, so Nobelology might be able to unpick the Nobel. For those determined to gain the Nobel prize for practical purposes, however, Antony Hewish (XIII) the discoverer of pulsars and the 1974 physics laureate, has some simple advice: forget the lobbying.

"I am sure all kinds of things go on, but Nobel prize nominators and judges are nothing if not independent-minded," he says. "When I go to countries like Korea, who are anxious to get a prize, the question people always ask is how do they go about getting a Nobel? I always advise them to get on with doing some good science."

Chris Bunting

100 years of the Nobel contents page

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