26 Sep 2020

Less razzamatazz, but Nobel Prizes go ahead amid pandemic

8:39 pm on 26 September 2020

The winners of this year's Nobel Prizes will miss out on a swanky gala in Stockholm surrounded by royalty and Sweden's glitterati, but 2020 will at least not be added to the war years when no awards were given.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on December 10, 2019 a visitor stands in front of a bust of the Nobel Prize founder, Alfred Nobel prior the Nobel awards ceremony  at the Concert Hall in Stockholm, Sweden.

A visitor stands in front of a bust of the Nobel Prize founder, Alfred Nobel, prior to the Nobel awards ceremony at the Concert Hall in Stockholm, Sweden, in December 2019. Photo: AFP

Yet as the coronavirus pandemic rapidly enveloped much of the world earlier this year, that was far from certain.

Lars Heikensten, executive director of the Nobel Foundation,

Lars Heikensten Photo: AFP

"When we were thinking about this in March and April this year, we were worried that it wouldn't be possible to award any prizes at all," Lars Heikensten, head of the Nobel Foundation that administers the prizes founded by dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel, said.

While Sweden has not imposed a rigid lockdown like many European countries, Heikensten said the committees that decide the various prizes had to switch to working digitally to make the selection process work.

But the foundation was determined that the awards - worth $US1.1 million ($NZ1.6m) this year - would go ahead.

"We thought it was particularly important in a year like this, when the importance of science is so obvious," Heikensten said.

The awards were cancelled during parts of World War 1 and World War II. Some prizes have not been given in individual years, with the most recent example being the postponement of the Literature prize in 2018 over a sex scandal.

The awards attract huge attention every year, shining a light, if only briefly, on scientists who work mostly in academic obscurity, while burnishing the reputations of often better-known authors who receive the Literature award.

Dr. Johannes Georg Bednorz, Nobel Prize Winner, Physicist, Portraet, PortrÃ_t, Portrait,  award of the Order of Merit of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia in Flora Koeln on August 23, 2020

Dr Johannes Georg Bednorz, from Germany, is a Nobel Prize winner for physics. Photo: AFP

But the Covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed almost a million lives globally, has meant that the Nobels will have a lower profile this year with many of the traditional celebrations postponed or re-jigged as digital events.

The foundation has cancelled the banquet, highlight of the celebrations that takes place every December, and the traditional prize-giving ceremony in Stockholm's Concert Hall will be replaced by a televised event where winners receive their prizes in their home nations.

This year's first prize - for Physiology or Medicine - will be announced on 5 October. Heikensten said if restrictions allowed by the end of next year, the 2020 winners would be invited to celebrate alongside the 2021 laureates.

"The traditional celebrations are important and part of what we are, but they are not the most important thing, which is the prize winners and what they embody," he said.


Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs