An interview with Prof. Sven Lidin, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry
DW: When the 200 members of the Academy meet to choose the laureate - do they come up with a name, or is it a Yes and a No?
Sven Lidin: It’s a Yes and a No. There is a procedure, which can be quite open, so that normally the committees will present one suggestion for the prize. But that decision has of course been preceded by a number of meetings of the Committee itself - the Committee together with the Class for Chemistry, or the Physics Committee with the Class for Physics. Of course, we also regularly meet with the Academy in pleno to describe what is going on, so that they can have an input into the procedure.
Do members of the Academy have a chance to express their protest if they are not content with the choice?
So it doesn’t have to be unanimous?
It doesn’t have to be unanimous, no. Of course, there is always the chance of a second suggestion from the floor. It has been a very long time since that happened last. But it has happened in the history of the Academy. There is an account of it in a recently published book from Norway about the history of the Nobel Prize.
Medal with Image of Alfred Nobel
So it is not unheard of, but, given the amount of work that goes into evaluating the candidates, we would view that as a sign that the committee has not done its job properly.
But it can be rescinded? You can say no?
Yes, you can say no.
And someone from the floor would suggest another person? This has happened?
It has happened in the past, yes. But today, the most important step is to pass through the Classes that handle the prize, through the Chemistry Class which is a larger collection of people. If there were dissent among the chemists as to whether the suggestion is a good one or not, there would certainly be a discussion in the whole Academy. But it's exceedingly rare for someone from outside chemistry to question the chemistry Prize, if only on grounds of competence.
Do you have the feeling that every scientist who really deserves the Nobel Prize gets the nomination or receives the Prize sooner or later in his or her lifetime?
I think, and hope that those who deserve it get nominations. But I am quite certain that there are people who are worthy of the Prize who never receive it.
First of all for technical reasons: there are discoveries that are made by groups of people larger than three, and there are strict rules for not awarding more than three individuals. On the other hand, there is a fantastic development in science today. Many things are being discovered, many people do great things. And to get the Nobel Prize, you don’t only have to be very successful, you also have to be a little bit lucky.
You are the head of the jury. Do you have a double vote or the final vote?
There are seven of us in the , which means that no, there is no double vote for me. Since there are seven of us, you can not abstain, which means that there will always be a decider for how the committee wishes to present to the Academy. But in the end the decision is made by the Academy. It’s an iterative process between the Committee and the Class, and then with the Academy. It’s a multistep process. But the final decision is always taken on the day that the announcement is made.
But among the seven of you, this sacred group, there has to be no dissent, right? Or is it sometimes 5-2, or 4-3? Is it a majority?
We are always unanimous. We always come up with a unanimous decision.
Are there any heated discussions beforehand?
To come to a unanimous decision, there will always have to be heated discussions.
But you can still enjoy a glass of beer together?
I would say that is absolutely compulsory in order to come to a good decision. But I should stress the fact that chemistry today is a huge subject. The seven of us are experts within our chosen areas.
It is very important that we have an informal way of working, so that it is all right to be less knowledgeable on a subject, to at least be humble enough to hear out your colleagues and to realize that they may be right and you may be wrong. There is simply no room for being pompous in a decision like this, because you have to think about the importance of the Prize as a marker. I think it is an important event in science, not because scientists are trying to get the Nobel Prize, but because for a few days it gives a rock star status to a few scientists and that puts the spotlight on science as a whole. I think that is the important role of the Nobel Prize, and that is why I think the work we do is important. But the important thing is to come up with the best possible Prize, not to promote our own areas.
The first step is always to identify a special area. Do you get any outside expertise?
Yes, we have a lot of help from outside. First of all, there are nominations coming in, and every year we solicit nominations from a large number of different sources. About 2,000 invitations are sent out every year. They are sent to individual scientists, they are sent to universities and organizations, they are sent to previous laureates. So there is a large collection of people, and the list is updated and re-hashed every year to make sure that we get a good selection of different areas of chemistry, different geographical areas, to make sure that we are not missing out on something important in terms of nominations. And I think those deserving of a Prize probably get nominations. We then go through every single nomination to evaluate it and categorize it into areas, so that we can identify areas that are of interest and individuals that are of interest. And then there is a parallel process where sometimes we are looking very broadly at the impact of an area and then we try to identify the people active within that area. In other cases, it is actually individuals that we are looking at. And if it's quite clear what they have done in terms of science, the important question is then: is that something which is important enough for a chosen area? So these processes run in parallel.
During this entire period, we solicit referees and comments from all over the world. So there is a large number of requests every year for people to evaluate our candidates. And the people who do this promise to keep quiet about it, and not to divulge the content of their own assessments for a period of 50 years.
Marie Curie: First woman to win a Nobel Prize (1903)
We make the same promise in return. This is extremely important, because the people who make these evaluations sometimes have to make statements about people in their own scientific area, which can be very sensitive. Therefore the sworn secrecy is extremely important. They have to know that this information will never get into the hands of anyone outside the Committee and the Academy.
Do you have a quota for women or for certain areas of the world?
As I think you can see each year: no, there is not. Of course, when it comes to geographical areas, we can see that a change is taking place. If you look back in time, you see that until about ten years after the Second World War, Europe was still very, very dominant. Then there was a period when the United States dominated the chemistry Prize. And during the last few years, the new century, the new millennium, we have seen an increasing number of recipients from Asian countries. This reflects a development in which more countries are getting involved in serious fundamental research. Every year we get the question why there are so few female recipients. And every year we give the same answer: that we find it very unfortunate that that is the case, but we are a mirror of scientific society. We reflect what society looked like about 25 to 30 years ago. And at that time, there was a huge surplus of males in science. And perhaps even more importantly, there was a huge surplus of males in controlling positions in science. And this is what we see reflected today in the gender imbalance of the Prize. But we don’t take action to promote either nationalities, gender, race, or religion. We feel that we should be reflecting society as we find it. What we are actively doing is ensuring that there is not too great a gender imbalance in our Class in the Academy and our Committee. There it is a question of finding people with sufficient competence, and that we can find.
What about gender equality in your Committee?
At the moment: two females, five males. At present, the chairman is male, but our secretary - who is not what you would generally refer to as a secretary, but a very integral part of the committee's inner workings and someone with a longer term, so also a person who sees to the continuity of the work - is female. Of course that makes it 5-2, which is certainly not balanced, but it is not an unfair picture of scientific society. And I think we will see more gender equality there in the years to come. When it comes to Prizes, however, I am afraid that we will see a different development. The old recipients of Nobel Prizes, namely Europe and the United States, are the nations where the awareness of the importance of women in science has been pushed the furthest. But what is going to happen is that, as the family of nations that are recipients of the Nobel Prize expands, we will see the Prize shifting to new nations. Now that is very positive from the point of view of science, but it does have the drawback that we may lose out on the gender equality issue.