How Are Nobel Prizes Awarded?

Today marks the end of Nobel season, as Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She beat out such other rumored front-runners as Pope John Paul II, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Russian activist Sergei Kovalev. How are the Nobel laureates selected?

It all begins with the annual nominations, due no later than Feb. 1. Each prize has slightly different criteria regarding who may send in a nomination, but those without prestigious jobs or specific expertise needn’t bother. Nominators for the physics prize, for example, are limited to members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, past winners, Scandinavian university professors, and a smattering of other handpicked specialists. The rules for literature and peace are a bit laxer than for the sciences, however. Literature professors worldwide are allowed to submit proposals for the literature prize, and “members of national assemblies and governments of states” can toss in their two cents on who should get the peace prize. Self-nominations are verboten, and candidates must be alive.

Once the Feb. 1 deadline passes, the Nobel committees sift through the nominations to ascertain each one’s legitimacy. These four-to-five-person committees consist of members of the institutions that ultimately award the prizes: The Swedish Academy (which hands out the literature honors), the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet (medicine), and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (physics, chemistry, and economics). The exception is the Norwegian Nobel Committee, whose five members are selected by the Norwegian parliament, and which acts as both committee and prize-awarding institution for the peace prize. Once it’s been determined that all the nominations come from qualified nominators, the lists are forwarded to the respective prize-awarding bodies for approval. The list for the literature prize, for example, usually runs about 200 names long.

It’s then up to each committee to separate the wheat from the chaff. They work for months to ax off candidates whose contributions aren’t up to snuff, often consulting outside experts to render an opinion if the work in question is particularly esoteric. (Here again, the Norwegian Nobel Committee differs: It explicitly forbids outside consultation, to avoid the potential taint of politics.) Around May, a list of finalists is sent to the prize-awarding body, whose members are supposed to spend the summer reviewing the work of each candidate. In addition, each member of the Nobel committee prepares an individual report, which includes his or her personal opinion as to who deserves the $1.3 million check come Dec. 10, the traditional date of the awards ceremony.

When the respective prize-awarding bodies reconvene after the summer break, they vote on the winners. All deliberations and balloting are kept in utmost secrecy, so details of the exact procedure aren’t well known. But winners must receive more than half the votes cast, and all awards must be announced by Nov. 15 (although the recipients are usually disclosed much earlier).

Nominators are theoretically bound by the secrecy rules, too, but mum’s not always the word. Peace prize nominators, in particular, often tip their hand, even going so far as to issue press releases after posting their packages to Oslo. This year, a Norwegian legislator named Harald Tom Nesvik went public about his nomination of President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair for their “decisive action against terrorism.” It’s commonly known that the Nobel folks detest such public lobbying, which has reportedly ruined more than a few candidacies in past years.

Bonus Explainer: The precise status of the economics prize is a source of endless debate. Created in 1968, and not mentioned in Alfred Nobel’s will, the award is officially known as the “Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.” Many traditionalists maintain that the prize thus doesn’t qualify as a true Nobel.

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