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How can we get more Nobel laureates?

Each October, for a moment, the world of science holds its breath. Who will it be and for what? The Nobel Prize has a special aura, not just for the prize recipients, but also for the patient researcher who refuses to give up. And naturally for their university.
KTH has one Nobel laureate to date; but how can we add to that number?

This week the annual Nobel Prize Award Ceremony will be presented in a different format – just as KTH’s own ceremonies have had to be adapted in this tragical year. KTH gained its first Nobel Prize 50 years ago in the person of Physics Professor Hannes Alfvén.

When it was finally Alfvén’s turn in 1970, neither ranking lists, status nor visibility were on every university’s minds as they are today. And while the stardust from then goes a long way, adding a few more Nobel prizes wouldn’t hurt.

We have many excellent and successful researchers, but when I play with the thought of how we could gain more Nobel laureates among our researchers, I also realize that there are a few things that could foil their chances.

The continuous search for funds  – takes a toll. A greater share of basic grants could ease this situation somewhat. There must be a way to enable talented minds to focus  in peace and quiet.

And it is pure research that is often rewarded – rarely applied research. Gaining breathing space in terms of time and money within a very narrow area can be difficult today. But that’s what’s needed in order to tackle an issue in depth,  without worrying about the merit of the work, or where continued funding will come from.

Added to which, all successful research needs to be seen. It has to be published in leading international journals and made available to other researchers, so that it can be evaluated and discussed. That, in turn, provides the supporting evidence for awards and remuneration.

Other explanations are that research is one part of a researcher’s brief, along with education on a broad front, and cooperation. At many of the most prestigious international universities that KTH is compared with, first cycle education is not part of their brief, since other parts of the system take care of this. Nevertheless, a broad brief is an advantage for KTH, as it shows the trust that Sweden places in higher education and research to deliver societal benefits via all its university graduates.

That research should benefit society is a cornerstone of the Swedish research system and this is naturally laudable. But what happens with research of a more subtle nature, that increases our knowledge and our know-how? Perhaps rather than offering any societal benefits today, it can be a key part of a solution tomorrow.

We must allow room for entirely new ideas that no research financing body has even started to think about. It is in this context that we need to seriously think about how Swedish universities should be able to compete globally with many of the universities that offer fertile soil for their researchers to claim the finest international award of all, namely the Nobel Prize.

If we think this is a quality factor of importance, these are the kinds of questions politicians ought to start discussing. Or is being good enough, good enough for Swedish higher education?