Transparency in selecting Nobel prizes needed

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 4:03am

Nobel prizes and controversy seem to go hand in hand. Three of the five given this year were contentious - said to be overtly political or prematurely awarded. Supporters inevitably hailed the wins, showering plaudits and portraying objectors as bad sports. That passions run so high shows just how important the prizes have become, despite being chosen in secret proceedings by committees of Norwegian and Swedish politicians who are not experts in the fields they are responsible for.

The European Union's taking of the coveted peace prize stirred the most ire, being awarded as the group struggles for unity amid serious economic and social threats. Norway's prize-giving committee said the EU was chosen from among 231 candidates for attaining peace and reconciliation and democracy and human rights. EU politicians were delighted, but others believed the continent's peace had instead been sustained by Nato and the US. Some saw politicking: that the prize was a reminder of achievements and a warning of the need for member nations to work against rising extremism and nationalism so as not to lose what had been gained.

Sending a political message is not what the founder of the prizes, Swedish dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel, envisaged. Yet Nobel committees, especially those choosing the peace and literature awards, routinely select winners to try to influence or push a particular outcome. Some suspect that is why Chinese author Mo Yan was this year handed the literature prize. It was certainly the reason the peace prize went to activist Liu Xiaobo in 2010 and to US President Barack Obama the year before. There are also those who wonder why Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka shared this year's medicine prize for a discovery in 2006 that has still to stand the test of time.

Arguably, no accolade is greater than a Nobel prize. Its prestige has to be protected. The Nobel Foundation would do well to review the way it chooses winners. At the heart of that process has to be transparency.