More Indians are poised to become Nobel laureates: Lars Heikensten
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Alfred Nobel whose will led to the creation of the Nobel Prizes believed in values of science and international cooperation, which are now under challenge in various countries, said Lars Heikensten, executive director of Nobel Foundation. Those who believe in these values need to talk about it, he said.
In an interview, he said advanced science comes with a high level of economic development, and India has had few Nobel laureates because the country has not had a highly developed science system due to its poor economic resources. He also thinks India will get several Nobel laureates in the next decade. Heikensten, a former governor of the Swedish National Central Bank, is in Ahmedabad to participate in the Nobel Series, a five-day event organized as part of Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit.
Tell us something about the Nobel Series and the reason for choosing India. Why is there a perception that not enough Indians have won Nobel?
Let me start with a little background of Nobel prizes. Alfred Nobel left a ‘will’ that was opened in 1896, according to which all his assets and money was to be used for rewarding those who have done the greatest benefit to mankind. It was to be a big prize and was universal. The essential message with the prize is it is to be given to those who have done the greatest benefit to mankind. It is given in five different areas and the institutions that make the choices are totally independent. The Nobel Foundation is not involved in the selection. It is responsible for taking care of money and assets and, of course, the brand. We are also responsible for holding the system together for fulfilling the will of Alfred Nobel.
Now coming to the present event, 20 years ago or so, we started a web company so that the whole world could know about our history and we wanted to stimulate and engage people. Alfred Nobel wanted to reward people to make them role models. Stories of Nobel winners encourage people to take up science or literature. Later on, we took over some television rights and then we got to social media. We are big on Facebook. In fact, we have the highest number of followers from India. The Nobel Series was initiated with a focus on seminars, panel discussion, interactions with young people all with the aim of making people more engaged in science. The exhibition is also done with the same purpose. Last year, we did it in Singapore. This is the second one. We did in Delhi but it was not on a full scale. In coming years, we will do it once a year or maybe twice a year.
We chose India because India is an important and growing country with a lot of young people. Also, we need local partners. Alfred Nobel’s money is only for prizes. We have signed an agreement with government of India, and government of Gujarat in Stockholm last year to spread awareness about the Nobel Prize. We plan to do more such programmes in India but we are yet to finalize them.
Why is there a perception that not enough Indians have won Nobel prizes?
I looked at this and there are at least four who are Indians (Nobel laureates) and who have worked a lot in India. And there are more who are of Indian origin but have worked in other countries when they received the prize. Also there are some of foreign origins who have worked in India like Mother Teresa. I found that there are roughly 15 Nobel laureates who have a strong connection with India. In fact, in Asia, it is only Japan that has more Nobel laureates than India.
Given the last 100 years, advanced science has been connected with high level of economic development. I think the explanation in the Indian case is simple that you have not had a highly developed science system and not the economic resources. That is one of the reasons why many people of Indian origin have moved to other countries and have received the prize when they were working with other countries.
I would be very surprised if India in the next one decade would not get many prizes. You are well-placed, you have an education system in place and you are growing rapidly… it is a fairly safe forecast. The European countries were very important before World War II. Germany, Sweden had most of their laureates before this period. US was also very dominating then. In the last 10 years, we have seen countries like Japan bagging more prizes. Among younger researchers, there are lot of Chinese and Indians today.
President-elect Donald Trump will assume office in the next few days in the US, a country which has given the maximum number of Nobel laureates. How do you see the new government, especially for promoting science and research?
I should be very careful in speaking. Generally speaking, Alfred Nobel stood for an open world; he was very much of a cosmopolitan. He would be someone for globalization, he would support international co-operation. He very much believed in science and facts. And we have seen in the western world that some of them (governments) are backtracking; we have seen populism, resentment towards trade and international cooperation and in some of these areas, Trump is an example. He has been questioning scientific evidence of climate change. He has clearly expressed that he is against the many aspects of international trade. So, he is an example.
But there are other examples. Brexit decision in Britain is part of the same thing. Important politicians in France like Marine Le Pen are seen to be advocating protectionist policies and disputing facts. Starting from what Alfred Nobel wanted, there have been some negative developments in recent years. Those who believe in science and international cooperation need to talk about it. And here, events like the one at Vibrant Gujarat are important and we need to encourage young people to get involved.
India has a role to play if some of these human values, which I, as a director of Nobel Foundation believe, feel are questioned as they are being questioned in some parts of the western world. In fact, it makes the role of India even greater. You have a tradition which is similar to ours; similar democratic values.
Nobel Prize is even today held by most as the highest award a person can achieve in his life. How have you managed to keep the brand and the values associated with it alive after all these years? Do you see any competition from other prizes? Also, are there plans to introduce more categories?
Today, history is important because people feel today that the Nobel Prize is being given with competence to the right people and with integrity, be it for peace, literature or science. It covers many different aspects of human life.
Now, there are new prizes that are bigger in monetary terms, but it will take them time and require that they do a good job if they want to challenge us. The way Nobel Foundation was set up with different institutions responsible for different prizes, having a lot of independence to them and at the same time keeping them all together in a federal structure, has been a functioning system over time. The Nobel winners see the prize as an acknowledgement for the most important work in their lives.
There was a prize in economics; it was in memory of Alfred Nobel in 1968; it was not planned. I don’t expect any new prizes. There are no such plans now.
Recently, there was some controversy after the Nobel Prize for literature was given to songwriter/singer Bob Dylan. What is your take on this? Will song-writers be considered for future literature prizes as well?
Given that I am not the one who choose, it is done by the Swedish Academy, so I don’t have strong views on it. I can say in general it is quite nice when the different committees do wide interpretations on who can receive the prize because by being fairly liberal on that, they are able to choose on a wider basis. In that sense, I have nothing against Dylan.
The Swedish Academy has said that if you go back to old history of literature, for example in Greece, all literature was then spoken or sung, not written. It has been given previously to theatre people like Dario Fo for example. Whether it is given in future or not, it is up to the Swedish Academy to decide.
Who, according to you, have been some of the most inspiring to people to win the Nobel and who have been controversial?
A person like Martin Luther King is most inspiring. He has been looked upon the most on our web page. Another person, of course, would be Nelson Mandela. Someone like Albert Einstein is really inspiring in many ways and has been very important in forming our view of the world. Someone like Alexander Fleming who came up with penicillin, he has saved lives of millions if not billions by now.
Watson and Creek got the prize for reading the structure of DNA and they have had an enormous impact on medical science. Bob Dylan has also been very inspiring. German scientist Fritz Haber who got the prize for his chemistry findings that were later used to make gases during World War II. His findings were used for chemistry purpose but proved very detrimental to mankind. So, it depends on how you look at it. Henry Kissinger also created controversy when he received the peace prize when the war was still going on in Vietnam. So, it depends on which angle you take.
What is really important is that when you make a choice, you make it with the choices you have and you make it with integrity. There was lot of discussion when Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was criticized by Chinese government when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. There was a Russian physicist and a Russian author who won the award during the Soviet time and the Soviet government was very upset. When Hitler ruled Germany, he was very upset when a German Jew won the Nobel.
There have been some controversies. Sometimes history will show that the decision was wrong or questionable in retrospect. It can be right when it is done and Haber is an example for that.
While this question has been raised a lot of times in the past, I would like to know your views on M.K. Gandhi being not chosen for the Nobel Prize for peace.
I completely agree with that. I think Gandhi should have won the prize. There is a piece on our home page about Gandhi and the peace prize. So, there are many more people than me who think that Gandhi should have got the Nobel Peace Prize. The headline to the article is ‘Mahatma Gandhi – The Missing Laureate’.