The Nobel Prize — Important for good research communication

Many in the academic world are fighting for media attention. Once a year when The Nobel Prizes are presented, the situation is reversed. The eyes of the whole world are focused on Sweden and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has the pleasure of having to cope with the media onslaught. As a part of the international conference PCST, which is being held in Sweden for the first time, the Nobel Prize winners and communicators have met up to discuss how to popularise research.

The conference ‘Public Communication of the Nobel’ Prize at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was held on June 23 in the Beijersalen Hall where the final voting takes place as to who will be awarded the Nobel Prizes.

Peter Agre (Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2003) and Frank Wilczek (Nobel Prize for Physics in 2004) participated during the day and bore witness to the fact that there is a clear difference between “before prize” and “after prize”. Both maintained that the Nobel Prize meant enormous possibilities for research communication. It only took a few minutes after the communication from the Academy before the first journalists appeared at their homes, and attention has continued since then. 

‘One experience is that I get to talk less about my own research and more about research policy and societal matters, which opens up new opportunities for influence outside my field as a researcher. One difference too is that more people are interested in me as a person; everyone wants to know who that funny researcher is who won the Nobel Prize. Being able to give research a human face in this way is important in order to counter to the fictitious image of scientists given by e.g. Hollywood,’ Peter Agre explains. 

Arousing interest and inspiring people

When people talk about their research, Frank Wilczek has discovered that less is more.
‘It’s better to try and explain a smaller amount and rouse interest than try and present the whole picture, which is often too difficult. Then you don’t get the message across.’
He also raises the importance of using illustrations and pictures to aid understanding of complex matters which are often not visible to the naked eye.

Peter Agre gives talks at schools to arouse the interest of pupils and inspire teachers. He stresses that it is possible to popularise all science. Details in research are often very complicated, but scientific working methods are simple and elegant — something he gets across to people by means of different experiments in the schools.  

Frederik All, public relations officer at the Academy, told of his work, where, for a few weeks every year, he develops popular scientific presentations of the discoveries behind the Nobel Prizes. In addition to researchers at the Academy, scientific writers, illustrators and translators are brought in to produce three documents for each prize: a short press release, a longer popular scientific text and a scientific background for scientific journals and for researchers interested in the subject.

‘The breadth gives our researchers the space both to maintain a high level and help popularise things, so that the public can understand the research.’

When the prizes are announced in October, the information is sent to 1,300 Swedish and foreign recipients by e-mail, fax and sms, and is also published on the web. During October, November and December 2007 this led to close on 15,000 articles on the web site about the Nobel Prizes and five million visitors during October on

‘Many others within the academic world are battling for attention, but the great interest in the Nobel Prizes means that we have instead the pleasure of fighting to cope with the media onslaught.’

Angela Lindner, the communications officer at Forschungszentrum Jülich (Julich Research Centre) presented a picture of what took place after the Academy presented the year’s prize winners. Peter Grünberg, Nobel Prize winner for physics in 2007, is active at Jülich.

‘One overarching piece of advice to other research institutions is to be active both before and after the prizes. This may perhaps sound funny, but most prize winners are not all that surprised but know they are under discussion.’

At Jülich they had been expecting Peter Grünberg to win the award as early as 2004, and they had a plan for dealing with the situation. For example he was assigned a personal PR representative until December who handled all queries from the media and helped out with

‘One important factor was informing colleagues at Jülich early, and giving them an opportunity to meet the prize winner. This helped us to get a lot out of the prize internally. The researchers felt that it really was ‘one of us’ getting the prize.’

Kept secret for 50 years

The day also offered some background to the Nobel Prize. Anders Bárány, deputy head of the Nobel Museum, explained why the prize exists today — something that proved to be due to more than Alfred Nobel’s will and testament. Amongst other things a law suit was prevented with relatives who wanted to tear up the will and stop the prize.

‘The three institutions, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Karolinska Institutet and the SwedishAcademy, who Alfred Nobel charged with awarding the prizes, first of all declined. Only after some years of negotiations, when rules had been agreed upon for the prize, did they emulate the Norwegian Storting (parliament) and take on this task of great responsibility.’

One important change introduced is that scientific discoveries receiving awards do not need to have been carried out as recently as in the preceding year, as the will requires, which would have made it impossible to find the right prize winners.

Gunnar von Heijne, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, recounted that work to decide prize winners starts in February each year when the nomination period expires. The Committee sends out enquiries to thousands of researchers and institutions to gather in candidates.

‘To assist with the assessment of all nominees, the Committee asks researchers to write reports within the relevant fields. We also organize hearings and interviews – all so as to be able to sort out important discoveries and find out in detail, when, how and by whom they were carried out.’

It is decisive for the work that the Committee’s material is kept secret for 50 years, which makes it easier for researchers asked, to be frank without risking clashes with colleagues.  

Annika Pontikis, public relations officer at the Nobel Foundation, who looks after the economic assets of the prizes, told of the work involved in guarding and developing the Nobel Prize brand and its core values: independence, creativity and value to society.

‘That the Nobel Prizes are valued so highly is due both to their being the first international prizes with a hundred-year history and to the fact that they are awarded by independent institutions which enjoy great trust.’

Part of the Nobel Foundations work to develop the brand is handling the media rights concerning all the activities of the Nobel Prizes.  

Dangers with research communication

The day concluded with a panel discussing the prerequisites for good research communication.

Marta Paterlini, a science journalist from Italy, stressed that journalists with their own experience of the Academy are better equipped to report on research.

‘Above all, it’s easier for them to ferret out the driving force underlying the researchers behind discoveries and explain the framework round the scientific work.’

The panel agreed that there were dangers with research communication. Poor popularisation can for example raise false hopes as regards cures for diseases or new green energy sources. One problem is that journalists who lack knowledge prefer to concentrate on conflicts between different researchers rather than explain the science, which has been noted within climate research.

According to Pascal Lapointe, editor of a scientific news bureau in Canada, good research communication is based on journalists having an opportunity to monitor research areas for long periods of time.

‘But with shrinking newspapers and an increasing number of temporary employees, it is becoming more and more unusual. This increases the risk of spectacular scientific news and superstition stealing the limelight from good research. One example is how creationism is being given wide coverage in the US.’

Perhaps the most important ingredient in good research communication is, according to him, what he calls the ‘wow’ factor.

‘That astrology and other frivolous things are attractive is due precisely to their appeal to people’s curiosity. Today’s space research has few practical applications here on earth, but people love to read about dark matter and other discoveries. In order to compete for attention, good research needs to get more people to say ‘wow!’ in the same way.’

The meeting continued the following day with informal visits to the Nobel Museum and the City Hall in Stockholm, where the Nobel Prize winners were able to revisit the Blue Hall and the Golden Hall, and recounted the festive entertainments experienced on their earlier visits during the Nobel Banquet.  


The 10th PCST-conference

The main conference of Public Communication of Science and Technology is being arranged for the tenth time this year. PCST-10 is being held in Malmö, Lund and Copenhagen on the 25-27 June. Over 500 communicators, journalists, researchers and other professionals interested in science communication will be participating. The network behind the conference is working an increased dialogue between different groups working within research and communication.

Text: Andreas Nilsson