The rewards of awards

Scientists all over the world look forward to the first week of October when the Nobel Prizes for the year are announced. This announcement begins with physiology and medicine and ends with the Nobel Peace Prize. The award relating to economics bear the name of Nobel but does not form a part of the Nobel Prizes given on the basis of Nobel’s will.

This Nobel season began with the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Medicine to Drs Jeffrey C Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W Young for their remarkable discoveries of molecular mechanism controlling the circadian rhythm. Barring the Nobel Peace Prize, the other prizes are based on strict scientific evaluation by the Academy of Sciences, Sweden. They, therefore, mark significant milestones in the onward march of science. We should be thankful that such a prize which is universally valued and respected exists. Our congratulations to this year’s awardees in Medicine.

The announcement of the Nobel Prizes for 2017came to an end on October 6 with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize going to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Other prizes in the name of Alfred Nobel like economics will be announced in the following weeks. As a past president of the Pugwash Conferences of Science and World Affairs, which itself received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995, I congratulate and thank the Norwegian Committee which selected ICAN for the award. Although there has been no major threat of nuclear war since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there is no time to relax since nuclear fissile material is available in a large number of countries particularly those which were formerly members of the Soviet Union. There are still several countries which have not yet signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, including the USA and Pakistan. India has also not signed the Treaty but has made a commitment, not to use nuclear weapon except in response to nuclear attack on India. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN is a timely reminder of the need, not to relax in our total commitment to the once for all abolition of nuclear weapons.

There have been attempts to enlarge the scope of the Nobel Prize to include other disciplines such as food and agriculture, economics, etc. The trustees of the Nobel Foundation however have taken the view that they cannot go beyond the will of Nobel. Therefore, in the case of economics, the Bank of Sweden instituted the Prize named after Alfred Nobel. The prestige of the Nobel prize has stimulated the establishment of similar prizes to honour distinguished work. For example, Dr Norman Borlaug, himself a Nobel Peace Laureate, tried to get a Nobel Prize in food and agriculture established. However, this was not successful. Hence he established the World Food Prize considered to be equivalent to the Nobel Prize in Agriculture with the help of General Foods initially and the Ruan Foundation later. A generous endowment from the Ruan Foundation has provided stability to the World Food Prize. Its prestige was also increased by awarding the prize in the premises of the Iowa State headquarters in Des Moines. I was the first recipient of the World Food Prize in 1987, since then it has been given regularly and 2017 World Food Prize Laureate is Akinyumi Adesina, head of the African Development Bank.

Dr Adesina is a very distinguished public policy maker and is now transforming African Development Bank into a powerful instrument for food and livelihood security and gender equity in Africa. The World Food Prize is generally awarded only to scientist and those who have developed methods of sustainable food security. However, occasionally, political leaders are also recognised as for example, the former president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the former president of Ghana, John Agyekum Kufuor. Lula da Silva introduced the zero hunger programme. This programme has several interesting features, including linking production with consumption.

In 2016, the prize was awarded to scientists and farmers who developed biofortified crops like vitamin A rich sweet potato. This award stimulated considerable interest in the use of biofortified crops to overcome hidden hunger caused by micronutrient deficiency. Thus, the awards stimulate work which is relevant to food security and farmers livelihoods. However, to be effective, the award should be given only to those who are worthy of such recognition. Otherwise, there will be no replication of their work. 

The Nobel Prize has achieved its prestige because of the selection process. Numerous new prizes are now being established in our country but what is important to ensure that these prizes are administered in a transparent way and the awards go to persons or organisation which will propel a self-replicating movement.

 (The writer is an agricultural scientist who led India’s Green Revolution )

M S Swaminathan