Cash-strapped Nobel Institute seeks fresh funding

Nobel prize season returns amid pandemic spotlight

By: AFP      Published: 09:41 AM, 1 Oct, 2021
Cash-strapped Nobel Institute seeks fresh funding
File photo.

In the throes of a cash crunch, the librarians at Oslo's Nobel Institute for a time donned gloves and tended to the gardens after the landscapers were laid off.

The prestigious institution behind the Nobel Peace Prize has been hard hit by rising costs and funding cuts -- made worse by the expense of running its vast and old offices.

With staff reduced from eight to five people since the 1990s, it is now turning to Norway's parliament for support -- raising concerns about the institution's independence. 

"For the past 20 years, our income has been reduced while our costs have continued to rise," Nobel Institute Director Olav Njolstad told AFP. 

"Without additional income, our cash flow will be exhausted in two or three years' time," he told AFP from his office, lined with history books on Adolf Hitler and the Cold War. 

Now, it is under pressure to sell its historic yellow-tinged building near the city's lush Royal Palace Park, which has hosted Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.

Given out at gilded ceremonies attended by Norwegian royalty, the Nobel Peace Prize has been won by dozens of people and organisations since 1901, including Barack Obama, Malala Yousafzai and the World Food Programme. 

It will be awarded this year on October 8. 

- Political pressure - 

The Nobel Institute in Oslo handles the administration to support a five-person committee that selects the peace prize winner -- the awards for science and literature are handled by separate committees -- and promotes research into peace.

Most of the institution's funding comes from an annual grant of 5.3 million Swedish crowns (523,000 euros, $605,000) by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm.

The Swedish chemist and engineer died in 1896, bequeathing money to establish the prize in Norway, along with awards for literature and science in Sweden. 

But the funding was cut drastically in 2013 in the wake of the 2007-8 financial crisis, and hasn't risen since.

What money there is doesn't stretch as far, due to the impact of inflation and ballooning pension costs. 

Njolstad is now appealing to parliament to step in to fill the yawning budget gap, but it has raised serious concerns about the institution's autonomy.  

"It is possible that in some future period there would be some pressure from one political group or another," said Dan Smith of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

"When money is given then you can expect that there would be a greater voice," he told AFP. 

In line with Alfred Nobel's will, parliament already appoints the committee's members. 

For decades it has made a modest contribution to the institute's library, but Njolstad has now asked for a substantially larger annual handout of eight million Norwegian kroner (789,000 euros, $913,000), which will be considered by parliament in the coming months. 

He insists the grant would only be used for running costs and would not compromise the committee's independence. 

"Other institutions in society are financed -- sometimes up to 100 percent -- by the state but nobody questions their independence," Njolstad said, using the examples of the courts and academic research.

- China row - 

Independence from politics is a cardinal value of the Nobel Committee: ministers have not been allowed to be members since 1936, while sitting MPs were excluded from 1977. 

But its choices have sometimes stirred up trouble for the ruling powers in Oslo. 

When the committee awarded Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, Beijing punished Norway by imposing a six-year freeze on bilateral relations and an effective block on salmon imports. 

Observers say that episode may have prompted parliament's reluctance to fund the Nobel Institute

"The issue raises several fundamental and practical questions, and deserves an open political debate," Tone Wilhelmsen Troen, the head of Norway's parliament, told AFP. 

Back at the Nobel Institute's premises in Oslo, the librarians no longer tend to the grounds after a generous neighbour eventually stepped in to cover the gardening costs. 

For some, selling the building offers a viable solution to the institute's money troubles. 

Maintaining such a costly property "is not a satisfactory way to manage" the money left by Alfred Nobel, said Vidar Helgesen, the director of the Nobel Foundation, the institute's main backer. 

But for Njolstad, selling the institute's home would be "a terribly bad idea". 

He doesn't think it will reduce costs and besides, they've been there since 1905. 

"All our history is connected to this building," he added.

Nobel prize season returns

Covid-19 vaccine pioneers, media watchdogs, climate activists and Belarus opposition leaders are just some of those tipped for Nobel glory when the latest prize recipients are announced from Monday against the background of the pandemic.

Launched 120 years ago, the medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and peace awards created by Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, as well as the more recent economics prize, will be given out in Stockholm and Oslo from October 4-11.

While the list of contenders is a closely guarded secret, Nobel experts say research on messenger RNA (mRNA), which forms the basis of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines, is a hot favourite for the medicine or chemistry prizes.

"It would be a mistake if the Nobel Committee did not give the prize to mRNA vaccine technology," Swedish science journalist Ulrika Bjorksten told AFP.

She cited as possible laureates Katalin Kariko of Hungary and Drew Weissman of the United States, whose pioneering research led directly to the first mRNA vaccines.

These have been injected in over a billion people worldwide in a race to ease a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 4.7 million people.

Kariko and Weissman have already received several accolades, including the Lasker Prize in the US, often seen as a precursor to the Nobel.

Other fields that could be honoured include cell communication, the workings of the immune system, the discovery of the breast cancer gene, epigenetics and antibiotic resistance.

The medicine prize opens the Nobel season on Monday, followed by the awards for physics on Tuesday, chemistry on Wednesday, literature on Thursday and peace on Friday. 

The economics prize wraps up the Nobel season on October 11.

- Peace prize for the climate? -

Among those generating buzz for the peace prize -- the only one to be given in Oslo -- are media watchdogs, Belarusian opposition leaders and climate campaigners, such as Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

The image of the prestigious award has been hit hard over the past years as one of its previous laureates, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, became embroiled in a war.

Another, Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi, was accused of defending the massacre of members of the Rohingya minority.

Last year, the World Food Programme won.

There is speculation that climate activists are next in line as the world experiences a torrent of deadly weather disasters, from asphalt-melting heatwaves to flash floods and untameable wildfires.

"It is the most important issue at the moment," said Nobel historian Asle Sveen.

Other experts believe the time may be right for organisations fighting for freedom of information and the rights of journalists, such as Reporters Without Borders or the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Non-violent opposition of Belarus's autocratic regime, spearheaded by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, is also seen as a worthy winner.

Although earlier deemed favourites, the World Health Organization and the Covax vaccine-sharing scheme have been hampered by the slow distribution of jabs to poor countries.

- 'Discover a genius' -

For the literature prize, to be announced on Thursday, punters suggested the Swedish Academy may look further afield after honouring several European and North American laureates.

"I do believe they really want to discover a genius from a previously neglected area," said Jonas Thente, literary critic at Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter.

He suggested "someone with a primary interest in cross-cultural experiences", such as 44-year-old Nigeria-born Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

"She is probably too young, but she would fit the profile."

Some names have been bandied about in Stockholm's literary circles for years -- Hungary's Peter Nadas, Canada's Margaret Atwood, Syrian poet Adonis and Somali author Nuruddin Farah.

Some newer names to emerge include India's Vikram Seth, China's Liao Yiwu and Mozambican writer Mia Couto. 

Last year, the honour went to American poet Louise Gluck.

While the names of the Nobel laureates are kept secret until the last minute, the Nobel Foundation has already announced that the glittering prize ceremony and banquet held in Stockholm in December for the science and literature laureates will not happen this year due to the pandemic.

Like last year, laureates will receive their awards in their home countries.

A decision has yet to be made about the peace prize ceremony held in Oslo.

This year's winners take home 10 million Swedish kronor (just under one million euros, $1.13 million), to be shared if more than one person is honoured in a discipline.