Bloomberg Línea — Norwegian Vidar Helgesen is since January this year the director of the Nobel Foundation, the entity that manages the assets and the legacy of the creator of the world’s most prestigious prize. The career of this lawyer by profession includes positions as his country’s Minister of European Affairs and Minister of Climate and Environment, as well as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
With multilateral experience that includes the general secretariat of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), as well as the Red Cross, the diplomat took on a very different challenge. Among the objectives of the institution he leads is also to raise the profile of the award, with the purpose of inspiring and disseminating knowledge of those who have been recognized for their work in the different categories that exist.
Part of these efforts are now directed to Latin America. Last Tuesday, November 16, five laureates in chemistry, physics and medicine met with 80 students from 24 countries in the region. On this topic and others, Helgesen spoke with Bloomberg Línea. Edited excerpts from that interview.
A look towards the region
We do these events in all regions of the world and Latin America is no exception. And we do them because Nobel Laureates are the most powerful force to inspire young students or those advancing their PhDs to pursue their academic ambitions and life dreams. This is important because science is very important to the world, as is addressing the great challenges we face as humanity. In the present case the theme of the event was to unite behind science and be united by science, necessary because science is under pressure.
The challenges that democracy is facing
Both globally and in Latin America, democracy is under pressure from different sectors. One of the global trends is authoritarian populism, while another is the polarization arising from social networks. Additionally, there is frustration because the democratic system does not always produce the expected results. But here we must also highlight the importance of building policies on the basis of science, which includes providing a scientific basis for public decision-making. And that can also help to improve outcomes. So the search for truth and greater effectiveness in decisions and services delivered is a matter for the discussions of Nobel Prize laureates.
Both globally and in Latin America, democracy is under pressure from different sectors. One of the global trends is authoritarian populism, while another is the polarization arising from social networks.
Lessons from the pandemic
There is no doubt that the development of vaccines is a very remarkable success of scientific and international collaboration. What has not been a similar success is the equitable distribution and sharing of those vaccines, something that falls more in the political than the scientific domain. That also has to do with how experts report and disseminate their findings-we are discussing in this part of the world the administration of a third dose for those who have already received two. Many scientists tell us that it would be better to give that dose to people in other parts of the world who have not received any vaccine so far. And since this is a global pandemic we need to accelerate the vaccination of everyone. So science can provide the vaccines and provide knowledge about the best way to deliver them. It can also get better at communicating their importance, because there are still many skeptics on the planet. Scientists should not be content just to find the vaccine, and they are not. But there is a long way to go in sharing the results of science and its importance. That is a task for scientists as well as politicians.
Dissatisfaction with politics, democracy or institutions has various reasons. From the perspective of the Nobel Foundation, we see the importance of science, literature or peace in promoting societies to transform words into actions for the benefit of humanity. Today’s challenges are economic, social inequality, health or climate change related. In all these areas, science has much to offer. It is clearly not the only element on which decisions should be based, but it should be fundamental to the process. Because if it is built on knowledge, there is a greater likelihood of addressing the causes of dissatisfaction.
The challenge of social networks
Social media is part of the reason why transmitting knowledge and information has become more difficult than in the days of traditional media. On the other hand, we have found that when the stories of Nobel laureates are shared, they are a source of inspiration, as many of them are people with fascinating life stories. With the inventions and discoveries they have made, they have really changed the course of history. So when there is a trust gap between the public and many institutions in society, I think scientists and academia are still a primary source of hope.
Social networks are part of the reason why transmitting knowledge and information has become more difficult, compared to times when there were traditional media.
Scientific and non-scientific Nobel Prizes
There are differences. For example, the Peace Prize is political, although it is not decided by political authorities but by a committee that has a mandate to examine global politics. The literature prize is largely based on taste and a sense of quality. The science awards, on the other hand, are more rigorous. The categories reflect Alfred Nobel’s choice and interests during his lifetime. In addition to being an inventor with a knowledge of chemistry and physics, he had a deep interest in literature, including literary ambitions. As he had health problems he was also drawn to medicine, as well as peace issues.
Another type of war
In September the Secretary General of the United Nations spoke about the war against science and the need to end it. That war against science and truth is part of an issue that can ultimately cause instability and destabilization. And the discussion is relevant to prizes such as peace and literature, not just scientific ones, since it is all about freedom of expression and the search for truth. So there are interesting links between the different categories because the fundamentals are those that correspond to a free society.
Low participation of Latin American laureates
The award was born at a certain time and in a certain reality. As things evolve and as the Western Hemisphere weakens in relative terms what we are seeing and will see is much more diversity. One example is this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature which was a huge surprise to virtually everyone.
Optimistic or pessimistic?
I am much more of an optimist and more so now that I see the work of extraordinary people. As a Norwegian I knew about the importance of the Nobel Prize, but when I see the interest and inspiration it generates in young people not only in Latin America but in other parts of the world, it is also an inspiration to me because this work creates a lot of optimism for future generations.