[GLOBAL EYE]A 'hands-on' Nobel committee

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[GLOBAL EYE]A 'hands-on' Nobel committee

Two years ago I wrote a column titled, "The Nobel prizes must be changed," and made two basic points. The first was that the prizes should not continue to be annual ceremonies to honor aged, veteran academics. My second point was that the ground rules for selecting laureates should be more geared toward those who make practical contributions. Nobel prize winners should not just include researchers in their ivory towers but also government policymakers, businessmen, private researchers and international financiers.

This year's selection of Nobel prize winners was in several ways refreshing. It was unprecedented to give the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to an "unknown" Japanese corporate worker with only a bachelor's degree. The economics pundits were surprised when the Nobel committee awarded the Nobel Economics Prize to two researchers in experimental psychology. Four Japanese have won Nobel prizes in core sciences in the last three years, proving that Japan is still a major industrial technology nation. It is also notable that the Nobel committee awarded the peace prize to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

The first signs of change in the Nobel committee were seen when it named as prize winners researchers in core information technology such as computer chips and the structure of semiconductors instead of naming Stephen Hawking, who has been hailed as the greatest physicist of our time. Jack Kilby developed the integrated circuit in 1958. Co-developer Robert Noise died some time ago, and there was some criticism of the committee for awarding prizes for accomplishments that were made decades ago.

The Nobel committee operates under ground rules from the will of Alfred Nobel to award the prizes to those who have made the greatest contributions to improving human welfare. This year's prizes seem to continue a trend by the committee toward honoring practical innovators, and instead of passively receiving nominations, the committee seems to have gone out looking for relative unknowns who are deserving of the prizes. In a ray of hope for corporate and "street inventors," Koichi Tanaka, a researcher at Shimadzu Corp. won the Nobel laureate for chemistry in 2002.

This year's Nobel laureate for economics was given to two pioneers of experimental economics and psychological economics, disciplines that are relatively unknown in mainstream economics. In our unclear and unstable real life, it is difficult to understand and predict the actions of participants in economies by simple laws of probability. The assumption that economic actors always make rational choices is also being increasingly thrown into doubt. The Nobel winners tried to define the factors that influence economic choices, including psychological factors, by using the scientific method. The committee regarded their pioneer spirit highly.

This is not the first time the Nobel committee intended to send a political message when selecting the laureate for the Nobel Peace Prize: Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa and the 14th Dalai Lama are examples. But in a rare commentary about a prize, the committee head openly criticized President Bush's Iraq policies.

The Japanese prominence in basic science awards is also notable. Nobel prize laureates are not limited to researchers at prestigious schools or graduates of those schools. Masatoshi Koshiba, a professor at the University of Tokyo and the Nobel laureate in physics for 2002, regards himself as "the bottom graduate." Kyoto University, not the University of Tokyo, has reaped most of the prizes awarded to Japanese scientists. Kyoto University is not infested with authoritarianism like the University of Tokyo. Joint university and corporate research teams including the likes of Kyocera, Nintendo and Sanyo are concentrated at Kyoto. Shimadzu Corp., where the Nobel laureate Mr. Tanaka is affiliated, is also in Kyoto. The nation can be admitted into the ranks of technological nations when creative eccentrics spend days and nights in their laboratories.

It is useless to long for a Nobel prize in a nation where university students in science and engineering are locked away studying for the bar or the civil service.


The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Byun Sang-keun

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