Göran K. Hansson

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goran-hanssonRicardo Campi

Göran K. Hansson (Gothenburg, 1951) opens the doors to his office in the Nobel Forum, at the Swedish capital’s Karolinska Institutet, to Mètode. In the main hall of this emblematic building he unveils, as it is his right as Nobel Assembly Secretary, one of the major scientific news items every year: the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology. This extrovert scientist, of serious countenance but agile eyes, is a recognised expert in the field of interactions between the immune system and atherosclerosis. Not only does he award prizes to other, but he keeps more than a dozen international awards himself. Some of the most important among them are the Anitschkow Award of the European Atherosclerosis Society and the Distinguished Service Award of the American Heart Association. He is also a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Europa Academy.

During the interview, Doctor Hansson reveals in an informal tone the past, present and future of the most prestigious prize in science, which saw its endowment reduced by 20% in order to ensure its survival. For this doctor turned into researcher, the legacy and meticulous analysis of each work is the key to the Nobel Assembly. On the other hand, Doctor Hansson shows his concern about abusive science budget cuts in our country and sends a clear message: cutbacks in science are cutbacks in future.

How did Göran K. Hansson end up here? Did you plan it from the beginning?
No, no… I never planned this job. I got a teaching place at Karolinska Institutet when I was in Gothenburg around 18 years ago. Then, after a couple of years, in 1998, I was chosen for the Nobel Assembly as a general committee member. And then I carried out different tasks here. When the previous Secretary retired I thought it would be a great idea to be the new Secretary. I felt motivated. And as you can see, here I am. But this is not my main job, this is only a 30% of my working time.

Is it difficult to decide who deserves the Nobel Prize? Are those meetings long?
We work very hard. Look, I will explain appropriately. We have several meetings during the year, starting in February when nominations arrive, followed by almost daylong meetings in March, when we discuss each of the 350 or 400 nominations we usually receive. We also get in contact with physics and chemistry committees to see if there are any common candidates. After that, we have a key meeting to select the best candidates: the result is a very short list. Now it is the moment for it to be examined by experts, from here and other parts of the world. Finally, in September we continue with the long meetings until we shorten the list and there are only three or four candidates, and the winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology will be chosen from them. In early October, at 11 in the morning, it is publicly announced.

Do you recall any bat times for the Nobel Prize? Any criticism that affected the organisation?
Oh! There have been lots. My previous assistant used to say: «The day there is not criticism against the Nobel Prize, that day the Prize will have lost all its importance and prestige». We appreciate debate, because that means people care, the Nobel Prize matters. We like to think that it is important to identify discoveries and discoverers, apart from sending a positive message of progress about science to humankind.

What aspect of the Nobel Prize makes you prouder?
The fact that it is the most prestigious Award, no doubt. And that it matters to people. And also the fact that it is really international: it does not have geographical limits.

What is the secret to survive more than a hundred years and still be the most prestigious award in such competitive and fast fields as Physiology or Physics?
I believe it has to do with a very meticulous assessment. Our colleagues all around the world feel that when we take a decision it is based in facts, true and verified facts, and that we have made a thorough previous analysis. This provides credibility in a way no other award features. It also has a prestige based in this hundred-year legacy, and that every new laureate feels he or she is on the steps of Einstein or Crick… and this obviously helps. For us it is also a challenge to keep this legacy in our time.

Today’s situation is very different from the past. Did the Nobel Prize have to adapt?
I think if you look at the discoveries that were awarded the Nobel we have discovered a lot of problems of the time. For instance, when we awarded the isolation of the AIDS virus, and if we go back, we have the isolation of the poliovirus. Many of them challenges in their time. We have also decided not to include new areas. We remain faithful to the first ones: Chemistry, Medicine, Physics, Literature and Peace. Economy is not a Nobel Prize but an award delivered in the ceremony with the rest. But I do not think there will be new ones. I mean there will not be a Nobel Prize in Mathematics or Environmental Policy. There are already other entities that reward these very important fields, but not us.

There are other awards coexisting with the Nobel Prize (for instance, we have the new Breakthrough Prize in Life Science, sponsored among others by Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook, and Sergey Brin, of Google, with a 3-million-dollar award, and the Japan Prize Foundation, with 650,000 dollars as prize). Do you think they are competition for the Nobel Prize? Are you worried about overlapping?
It is true that there are other important prizes awarded in the same areas of knowledge, those you mentioned for instance, but the Nobel Prize is still the most prestigious one. Of course we have to keep working in order to keep the excellent status we have now.

Too many awards? Could this lead to a serious problem (scientists focusing on topics or areas more favourable to obtain a prize instead of less important issues)?
I do not think so, no. I do not believe that anyone goes into science expecting to win a Nobel Prize after 30 to 40 years of career. The prize comes with hard work linked to very important discoveries.

 

 

 

 

 

«El Premio Nobel es el galardón más prestigioso. Es realmente internacional»

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

«I do not know if Alfred Nobel realised how intelligent the combination was»

goran-hansson-2Ricardo Campi 

 

 

 

«It was annoying for the king to think that foreigners would be receiving Swedish money. But it still happened»

Concerning the future of the Nobel Prize: Will it last another 100 years? Will you still be the Secretary of the Nobel Assembly?
Well… (Laughs). The second question is easy to answer: I will not be the Secretary in a hundred years. And in regard to the first one, of course we would like to keep doing this; it is our goal, because we have been very successful during these first hundred years. And yes, we still think the Nobel Prize will play an important role, today and tomorrow. I think the combination is simply brilliant. I do not know if Alfred Nobel realised how intelligent the combination was. Everyone has an opinion about world peace, everyone reads the Nobel Prize for Literature, and science has undoubtedly benefited from it. Besides, carefully examining and objectively evaluating the nominees makes the way easier for us, gives us assurance for the future.

 Why do you think the Nobel Prize is so respected in society?
I think it has a lot to do with what I said before: careful assessment, legacy and the history behind you. The broad combination covers from physics to peace. People believe we really reward great science discoveries. It also was the first international award; before it started every award was national. There were also protests in Sweden because of this. It was annoying for the king to think that foreigners would be receiving Swedish money. But it still happened. It was a huge change.

The press plays a fundamental role in spreading information, and since it is science we develop, what is your opinion on the presence in some newspapers or magazines of scientific journalists without real science experience? Do you think it could be harmful for science?
First thing I have to say is I am very impressed by scientific journalists. Most of them are very good. They usually explain what our discoveries and topics are about even better than we do. They are really good mediators between society and us. And they perform magnificently. Of course, there are situations when a journalist covering a Nobel Prize has no idea about the area of the research… However, we have to live with this.

What is your opinion on Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC)?
Actually, I know very little about them. Nevertheless, I do not think they are the future of education because the student and the professor being face to face is what really matters.

 Do you read any blog?
Have you seen how many articles I still have on my desk? (Laughs) No, because I do not have time for that.

 Why do you think it is so easy for politicians to cut science budgets?
Science is the future. It is dangerous to make budget cuts on the future of any country, of any region… This is the first thing that comes to mind. You have to assess what is good and strong and should therefore be financially supported, and what is not so strong… However, it would be a tragedy to cut all research activities. I know Spain is one of the leader countries in science and I expect it to keep that status. In fact I am impressed how scientific research has been built in Spain in the last 25 years. I know there are financial problems, but science cannot be cut.

 Many of our students and young scientists are leaving Spain because of the lack in science investment. It has been called a «brain drain». Are Spanish well received in other countries? Do you know any Spanish emigrant?
I could not generalise from my position, but what I do know is that there are several Spanish scientists researching in the best universities in the world. For instance there is a woman in my lab. However, I cannot give my opinion on whether they are being forced to leave the country because of a lack of investment. I do not have enough information.

Until now only two Spanish scientists have won a Nobel Prize, Ramón y Cajal in 1906 and Severo Ochoa in 1959. We rank second in the world in science production. How can we have so few Nobel Prize winners? Is there a system problem with science in Spain?
I think it is necessary to look back into the history of the 20th century. Spain has gone through a civil war and a dictatorship, and obviously these are not the best environments for science development. But, after the restoration of democracy, Spain had a continuous advance in science. That much is clear and I am positive that it will continue.

What is the future of a country suffering such a major loss of talented scientists?
It is worrying, very worrying for the country. They are reducing science budgets; they are reducing the budget for their future. Look at Germany, for instance. Germany was the leading country in science some years ago, there is no doubt about that. When Hitler came into power, many scientists fled, like Einstein, and this was the biggest example of brain drain in history. They went because they were anti-Nazis, Jewish… and Germany lost its rank. And just now they came back to the leading position, but it cost them many years of recovering. This is a message for every country to learn: do not cut science budgets or the recovery time will be very long.

Lamberto J. Torralba Raga. Biochemist. Karolinska Institutet (Sweden).
© Mètode 2013.

 

 

 

«I am impressed how scientific research has been built in Spain in the last 25 years»

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

«The example of Germany is a message for every country to learn: do not cut science budgets or the recovery time will be very long»

© Mètode 2013

Bioquímic. Karolinska Institutet (Suècia).