Scientific Summits: The Nobel Symposia during the Cold War
Some scientific conferences are less public than others, catering to the elite or ‘ultra-elite’. Since 1965 the Nobel Foundation has arranged around 160 Nobel Symposia. These select gatherings of 20-30 leaders in the fields defined by the Nobel Prize categories were conceived of as an antidote to the mass phenomenon of run-of-the-mill conferences. Unlike other gatherings with thousands of presentations, they would offer a secluded space (in a wealthy Stockholm municipality) for serious discussions among world-leading experts. According to instructions prepared in 1968, their “standard” demanded inviting only “elite persons” and aiming for “quality, not quantity”, relying on the prestige of the “Nobel name” to guarantee success.
The Nobel Symposia can be seen as a reaction to the science expansion. However, their elitist character was promptly contested, and the organisers themselves torn between seclusion and inclusion. An initial purpose of the symposia was to provide the Nobel Committees select laureates with up-to-date knowledge about potentially prize-worthy research. In addition, they became important for public relations and as a resource for the national scientific community. As word spread about the initiative, other organisations with similar ambitions – like the Brookings Institution in Washington DC and the Rockefeller Foundation – sought collaboration.
This case study will trace the history of the Nobel Symposia from 1965 to the present. One aim is to investigate their role in producing and reproducing scientific elites. This will be done through a prosopographic analysis of participants in the science, medicine and interdisciplinary symposia (80 % of the total), using indicators such as age, academic affiliation, scientific specialty, gender, and nationality. This analysis will constitute a framework for deeper research into the role of the Nobel Symposia within an international system of similar elite endeavours. PI Sven Widmalm will undertake the prosopographic project and research the 1969 interdisciplinary symposium on “The place of values in a world of facts”, that had important repercussions for later initiatives integrating science and policy. Team member Jenny Beckman will conduct research on selected symposia and on their changing institutional networks. The Swedish “Nobel establishment” (members of the Nobel Committees, the board of the Nobel Foundation, and other insiders) will constitute an empirical focus, but the wider aim of this case study is to increase knowledge about how often self-elected elites in science communicate among themselves and with other elites in order to create public spaces for strategic initiatives on urgent problems at the intersection between science and policy. Sometimes such spaces were institutions; often they were conferences.