Nobel prize for prestige not profit

Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel

In recent months there have been reports that the Nobel Foundation, the body responsible for awarding the world famous Nobel prizes, has been concerned that the prize money they offer may begin to fall behind other prizes awarded in similar fields of science. They are concerned that this will reduce the importance of the Nobel prizes, and as a result are said to be considering accepting donations or sponsorship in order to increase the value of the prize fund.

Due to performance of stock markets in the last few years, the Foundation’s investment fund now has a value in real terms of only 1.8 times that originally bequeathed by Alfred Nobel at the end of the 19th century. In 1999, the fund stood at 3 times its original value. Because of this, the Foundation had to reduce the value of the Nobel prizes this year from 10 million to 8 million Swedish kronor (£750,000). This is in the face of new prizes set up in recent years offering large prizes, for example the Fundamental Physics Prize, which offers a prize of $3 million (£1.8 m).

But does it really matter if the monetary value of a Nobel prize falls, or that there are other prizes offering more cash? I think not. The Nobel prize is the only one that the man on the street is likely to have heard of, yet the public would have no idea what its financial value was, or even that it was accompanied by a large amount of money. Likewise, scientists do not choose their field with the aim of becoming rich. If that was their concern, they would choose a different career. It is the prestige that makes the Nobel prizes special. Academic institutions are sometimes ranked by the number of Nobel laureates they have produced. The pinnacle of a famous scientist’s career is receiving the Nobel prize. That isn’t going to change just becasue the value of the prize is slightly lower.

The last thing the Nobel Foundation should do is go down the sponsorship route. That would be most inappropriate, and lead to the sort of situation that saw a prize for women’s fiction become the Baileys Prize this year. That would destroy the true value of the prize far more than any loss in financial value. Besides, there is something enigmatic about a 19th century chemist and businessman, the inventor of dynamite, leaving a large amount of money with the instruction that it be used to award prizes across a wide range of fields. The Nobel prizes will always stand apart from any others that may be introduced, and the way they are awarded and funded should be left as Alfred Nobel wished.

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