Awards: Populism on the rise: Nobel Prizes in complicated times

There are few awards that have more prestige than the Nobel Prizes.

Awards: Populism on the rise: Nobel Prizes in complicated times

There are few awards that have more prestige than the Nobel Prizes. The science categories usually honor researchers who have earned the respect of their disciplines over decades.

In society, however, this respect for science has suffered in recent years: populist voices in politics and civil society are increasingly openly questioning scientific findings, for example on the climate crisis and the corona pandemic, without providing concrete counterarguments. Some make use of deliberate disinformation among the population.

Announcement from Monday

The Nobel Prizes could become even more important in such times. This year's winners will be announced starting Monday in Stockholm and Oslo, starting with the scientific categories of medicine, physics and chemistry. If this time these prizes go to findings on relatively current, citizen-related topics such as the development of corona vaccines, then this could also strengthen trust in scientific facts. Who receives the awards is always a big secret in advance.

“Anti-science populism has indeed become a political mobilization tool, although in my opinion it is more issue-related,” says communications scientist Matthias Kohring from the University of Mannheim. He says that the issues must be linked to alleged control by political elites - "those up there", as the saying goes - in order to generate political resonance.

“What you can observe is a polarization in the population, which populist politicians are striving for, expanding if possible and continuously serving,” says Kohring. In the USA, however, this has reached far more dramatic proportions than in Germany.

Misinformation as a great danger

Trust in scientific findings and the fight against disinformation have also been an issue for years in the Nobel Prize cosmos. “Misinformation damages our trust in science and risks becoming one of the greatest threats to our society today,” warned the Nobel Foundation at a Nobel Prize summit on “Truth, Trust and Hope” in Washington at the end of May. At that time, she invited award winners and experts to explore how these tendencies could be combated.

“We see around the world that there are very systematic efforts to undermine science, to undermine the truth and to tear apart large parts of the social structure of society,” said Nobel Foundation Executive Director Vidar Helgesen. "So we have a problem. The world has a problem."

The geophysicist and President of the American National Academy of Sciences, Marcia McNutt, warned on Helgesen's side: "When we look at the effects of mis- and disinformation, it is not limited to science. We see it in politics Health, we see this throughout society." She later added: "Science is never complete, it is never perfect - but it is the best we have."

Almost a million euros per category

When this year's Nobel Prize winners are announced, leading scientists will once again be placed at the center of the world's attention to honor their extraordinary discoveries. According to the will of dynamite inventor and prize founder Alfred Nobel (1833-1896), the aim is to honor those who have brought the greatest benefit to humanity with their findings. This year, the prizes are worth eleven million Swedish crowns (around 950,000 euros) per category, one million more than last year.

Communication scientist Kohring is rather skeptical as to whether the renowned awards can prove to be a source of trust in science. The Nobel Prizes could certainly play a role in highlighting the importance of science - after all, they honor epochal achievements, he says. However, the awarding of prizes represented a ritual that seemed “somewhat aloof” for those who believed in science anyway. "Suspicious people will perceive this as a self-affirming pat on the back from the opposing camp," says Kohring - in other words: If you don't believe in science, you won't be interested in the Nobel Prizes.

He sees it as a missed opportunity that the Nobel Prize in Medicine did not go to the developers of the corona vaccines in recent years, who ultimately saved countless lives around the world. The developers of the mRNA vaccines have been among the top favorites for the prize since the Corona crisis in 2020, but so far they have always come away empty-handed. But even if that happens this time, Kohring says: “The rigid corona deniers and vaccine opponents will not be won back.”