Nobel 2020: Science takes centre stage at a scaled-back awards

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Science is expected to take centre stage at the 2020 Nobel prize awards as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic.

The most obvious change to the programme for the awards in the sciences, economics and literature is the cancellation of the traditional presentation ceremony in Stockholm. The separate Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo will be held in a scaled-back version.

However, there are also more profound changes affecting what the Nobels mean in a world confronted not just by the present threat of Covid-19 but also by the looming climate crisis.

Ahead of the awards, Nobel Foundation head Lars Heikensten has said the pandemic is a crisis “for all of humanity”.

“It illustrates how important science is," he added.

Nobel historian Asle Sveen told The National that this year’s awards would be unique and the impact of Covid-19 and climate change would doubtless have a bearing.

Chemistry laureate Frances H. Arnold, left, receives the prize from King Carl Gustaf of Sweden, during the Nobel Prize award ceremony, at the Stockholm Concert Hall, in Stockholm. AP  
Chemistry laureate Frances H. Arnold, left, receives the prize from King Carl Gustaf of Sweden, during the Nobel Prize award ceremony, at the Stockholm Concert Hall, in Stockholm. AP  

“The pandemic is very serious but climate change is much more serious,” the former Oslo University academic said. “You have to have global co-operation to fix this.”

Divining who will win the prizes in physics, medicine, chemistry and economics is complicated. The awards are usually given to individuals and teams that excel in their fields but are relatively unknown to the public.

The awards in the sciences also tend to be given for discoveries made a number of years prior that have gone on to have immense impact.

Nevertheless, the virus could have influence the committees for this year’s awards and Web Science, which correctly predicted the chemistry laureates in 2019, has spotted some potential winners whose work has impacted the world of vaccine science.

In an unparalleled scientific effort, experts around the world are racing to find a shot to prevent Covid-19.

A bronze bust of Alfred Nobel is pictured before the Nobel Prize ceremony at Stockholm Concert Hall, in Stockholm, Sweden December 10, 2019. Reuters
A bronze bust of Alfred Nobel is pictured before the Nobel Prize ceremony at Stockholm Concert Hall, in Stockholm, Sweden December 10, 2019. Reuters

Pamela Bjorkman, a professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology, and Jack Strominger from Harvard University have been tipped as potential winners of the Medicine prize.

Their landmark discovery of specific proteins has gone on to have applications in drug and vaccine development.

For Chemistry, professors Taeghwan Hyeon at Seoul National University, Moungi Bawendi at MIT and Christopher Murray at the University of Pennsylvania have been identified as possible laureates.

The trio’s synthesis of nanocrystals has gone on to have a wide range of uses in a number of medical systems.

There are also indications the high-profile Nobel Peace Prize will be influenced by the pandemic.

Updated: October 3, 2020 11:20 PM

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