Thomas Perlmann: “Everyone is passionate about the Nobel Prize”

Few prizes attract the same attention worldwide and have such a rigorous selection process as the Nobel Prize. According to Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the Nobel Assembly and the Nobel Committee, the importance of preserving the prize’s reputation is greater than ever before.

Text: Helena Mayer, first published in Swedish in the magazine Medicinsk Vetenskap, No 3/2018.

The 50 professors that make up the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet are responsible for selecting the researcher or researchers who will receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine each year. In addition to the Nobel Assembly, there is also the Nobel Committee, a working body of roughly 15 people responsible for carrying out much of the practical work.

Thomas Perlmann outdoors, in front of a colorful deciduous tree.
Thomas Perlmann. Photo: Erik Flyg.

“The most fun is without a doubt the preparations and the meetings held in the Committee and the Assembly. You get to read some incredibly exciting research, people are very committed, and there is no question that they are passionate about the Nobel Prize,” says Thomas Perlmann, secretary of both the Nobel Assembly and the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine since 2016.

The Assembly votes on which candidates to proceed with.

“We air our opinions, but in a friendly manner. Our opinions and feelings may differ,” says Thomas Perlmann.

According to Perlmann, it is thanks to the careful investigative work that the right research has been awarded over the years.

“But if I was to give an example of an oversight, it would be Oswald Avery’s discovery in 1944 that DNA is the molecule carrying our genome in the cells, which was a find worthy of a Nobel Prize. Avery was nominated, but he was never awarded the prize before his passing away,” says Thomas Perlmann.

A specific discovery

One fundamental rule is to reward a specific discovery, not the career of a scientist. There should be a clear “before” and “after” within the research field.

“Generally, good research is characterised by its substantial impact, which in turn enables further discoveries and innovations. The problem is that the impact is rarely visible until 20, 30 or even 40 years have passed,” says Thomas Perlmann.

One exception is Shinya Yamanaka, who received the prize in 2012 (along with John B. Gurdon) for a discovery he made in 2006 on how already specialized cells can “regress” their development and be reprogrammed back into stem cells, which can then be developed into all tissues of the human body. In this case, all the criteria of a great discovery were fulfilled very quickly.

When it comes to common traits among Nobel Prize winners, Thomas Perlmann feels that the ones he has met share an unusually high degree of curiosity and openness to new ideas.

“They are often very creative and dynamic people, yet most of them have also had a good deal of luck. They have been at the right place at the right time,” he says.

No one from the outside

Transparency is non-existent when it comes to the Nobel Prize selection process. The reason is to avoid any outside influence over who is awarded the prize. All members have signed a non-disclosure agreement, and the documents are only made public 50 years after a decision is made. However, something went wrong in 2010, when the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet revealed the Nobel Prize winners before the Committee had made its announcement. The Nobel Committee has since introduced more rigorous regulations and brought in experts on IT security in order to make sure that this never happens again.

One of the most serious crises came in 2011 when it was discovered following the announcement that the Nobel Prize winner Ralph Steinman had passed away before the decision was made that same morning. According to Nobel Prize regulations, the prize winner has to be alive when the decision is announced. After consulting with legal experts, the Nobel Foundation decided to uphold the decision, as it had been made in good faith.

Thomas Perlmann was not secretary at that point, but he had been appointed to the position by the time the Macchiarini case culminated in 2016. Some members of the Nobel Assembly were also connected to the case.

“I have the overall responsibility to handle communications with journalists, and it is important to be accurate and transparent. But it was difficult to handle the media pressure, even though the Nobel Prize was not directly affected,” he says.

A survey carried out after the Macchiarini case showed that the reputation of the Nobel Prize had been negatively affected in Sweden, but not to any significant extent internationally.

Female candidates

One issue that has been gaining attention lately is that out of the roughly 400 nominations made each year, only 10 percent are female candidates, even though their numbers are increasing. There are also few women among those who submit nominations. To increase the number of women submitting nominations, the Committee has revised the wording of its invitation and sent out individual invitations to more women, which has yielded results. Yet out of the 214 prize winners in medicine up until 2017, only 12 have been women.

“The low number of women is a complex issue to address. But since the research discoveries being awarded were often made long ago, when there were fewer female professors, this pattern is reflected in the Nobel Prizes given today. I am convinced that the development is moving in the right direction and more Nobel Prizes will be awarded to women, but I wish that we were making faster progress,” says Thomas Perlmann.

Crisis within the Swedish Academy

The Swedish Academy, which is responsible for awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 2018 underwent a crisis in the wake of the #metoo movement.

“There has been increased focus on the issue. The crisis within the Swedish Academy is a serious matter since all of the Nobel Prizes are connected. The combination of science, culture and peace creates a sort of synergy that provides the basis for our good reputation,” he explains.

Yet, Thomas Perlmann believes the Nobel Prize has a bright future ahead:

“Our reputation is still strong, but we have to remain relevant and confidence-inspiring and maintain a high degree of scientific integrity. At a time when many truths are being questioned, for example by politicians who use alternative facts that suit their particular sphere of interest, the Nobel Prize must carry the torch.”

How the Nobel Prize candidates are chosen

During autumn, thousands of invitations to nominate candidates are sent out to former Nobel Prize winners and professors at medical faculties. Only invited researchers are allowed to make a nomination. The deadline is in January, and the Nobel Committee then submits a proposal to the Nobel Assembly. Additional people are co-opted onto the Committee depending on the expertise needed.

In August/September, the Assembly agrees on a candidate. The final vote takes place in the morning, just before the official announcement, on the first Monday in October. The Nobel Prize is awarded on Nobel Day, which falls on 10 December every year.