The Nobel Prize is great, but where are the women?

There has been a lot of focus on the Nobel Prize in the past week. Most people probably think that all the Nobel Prize things happen in Stockholm, but the truth is that several activities have been arranged here in Gothenburg as well. It started with the popular-science event Nobel Week Dialogue last Saturday and ended Thursday with a Nobel Prize lecture by Richard Henderson, one of this year’s three Nobel laureates in chemistry. We organised the lecture together with Chalmers University of Technology. It has actually become a yearly tradition for the two of us to jointly invite one of the winners to give a lecture to students and other interested people. It is my understanding that it has been greatly appreciated!

So, again, the Nobel week started with the Nobel Week Dialogue, a huge event held in a packed convention hall at the Swedish Exhibition and Congress Centre. 1 200 people, mainly students, had come to listen to seven former Nobel Prize winners, but also a number of other reputable individuals, including former CIA director Michael Hayden and New York Times political correspondent Maggie Haberman, talk about the future of truth. An important topic in an era of false news, alternative facts and widespread challenging of knowledge. The intention was not to focus on the president of the United States, but it was obvious that many of the participants had a hard time not mentioning what is happening in the US and how it is affecting the world.

It was both interesting and fun to take part in the Nobel activities in Stockholm. Saturday night, I attended a big social event at the Nordic Museum. Sunday started with an award ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall and ended with the Nobel Banquet in the evening. After a big dinner at the Royal Palace Monday night, I finally returned to my more normal life in Gothenburg a bit exhausted but full of great memories.

There is no doubt that the Nobel Prize and everything that happens around it are of great importance to the image of Sweden in the world. This is something we should treasure and be proud of. Now that the festivities are over, as a university we have some important things to ponder over. One such thing – and I’m not the first person to point this out – is the scarcity of female Nobel laureates. I don’t know exactly how many women have won a Nobel Prize over the years, but it is certainly not a very big number.

 From what I understand, some initiatives to have more women nominated have already started. For example, about a year or so ago, the Nobel committees started to invite more women to submit nominations. Another good initiative is that the Nobel Foundation in February next year will organise a conference where possible measures to increase the number of female laureates will be discussed. But I think it will take a lot more than merely discussing the issue at the highest level. I’m convinced that more fundamental changes will be necessary, and in this context I hope and believe that the gender mainstreaming efforts that are currently underway in academia will have a positive effect.

It’s really sad to every year in connection with the awarding of the Nobel Prizes be reminded of how difficult it is for women to reach the highest levels of the academic community. What’s more pleasant is to be reminded of the importance of basic research, or rather that it is a prerequisite for the really big discoveries. It is also good to be reminded of the importance of patience, perseverance and cooperation. In fact, many of the prizes awarded are the result of persistent work for several decades across both national and disciplinary boundaries. It was refreshing to hear several speakers talk humbly about their research breakthroughs and cooperation with colleagues.

Less silo mentality and more intense collaboration and teamwork. This may not always lead to new Nobel Prize laurates, but will with great certainty lead to more ideas and an overall higher quality.

From the Nobel Prize Ceremony in Stockholm
Me and Cecilia Schelin Seidegård, the Chair of our University Board

Cooperation with Southern Africa Benefits Democracy and Academic Freedom

University networks and international conferences are not always what they are cracked up to be. Yet last week’s jubilee conference of the SANORD university network (Southern African Nordic Center) in Zimbabwe lived up to expectations by a wide margin. I participated as a keynote speaker, and it was a very special feeling to arrive in the country just days after 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe had finally agreed to resign after 37 years in power. The fact that just about every lawyer in Zimbabwe had gathered to discuss the country’s legislation reinforced the feeling of experiencing a historic milestone firsthand.

SANORD is a network of universities in southern Africa and the Nordic countries. At present, it has 46 members, of which 21 in the Nordic countries. The network’s focus is on addressing regional and global challenges in research, education, innovation and development, and on contributing to achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals. The University of Gothenburg has been a member since 2011. The network, which was established to promote cooperation between the two regions, celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. The University of Gothenburg had sent three representatives: Jens Stilhoff Sörensen, researcher from the School of Global Studies, Karolina Catoni, international administrative officer from the International Centre, and I. Jens spoke at a workshop on academic freedom and the transfer of knowledge between the North and the South. Karolina was among other things involved in arranging a workshop on how the international cooperation should be strengthened to develop SANORD further.

One observation that I built my own speech around was how the contacts between the Nordic countries and southern Africa in recent decades have developed from mostly concerning support, for example during the apartheid era, to a more equal partnership. A partnership where we, despite our differences in conditions and in the challenges we face, can learn from each other in areas such as the role of universities in society, academic freedom and sustainable development (for example in relation to democracy). While Zimbabwe and some other countries hopefully have some democratic advances to look forward to, the democracies in our part of the world are being threatened by some relatively new phenomena, such as false news, deliberate misinformation and an overall growing contempt for knowledge. Cooperation with African states where democracy has often turned into dictatorship can help us see more clearly what is actually needed in order to maintain and further strengthen a democratic system.

The importance of collaboration was something that South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor, too, emphasised in her speech. Both of us agreed that although our countries are located very far apart, modern technology makes it easy to reach one another.

Most of my speech concerned sustainable development, the responsibility we have as universities and what we can do together to contribute to the UN’s Agenda 2030 and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. By using various examples, I tried to show how all of the goals are linked, but also how we with our research, education and outreach play a key role in the achievement of ambitious goals such as eradication of hunger, increased equality and education for all by the year 2030.

In the ongoing review of the international networks that the University of Gothenburg is already involved in, or wants to join, I feel that the cooperation within SANORD is well worth developing. It is a constellation involving two continents with vast untapped opportunities for cooperation, and we are therefore planning to increase our engagement in the network. This applies to both thematic research collaborations and various student exchange schemes.

The next SANORD conference will be held in Jyväskylä in August 2018 under the title Academic citizenship: recognition, resilience or resistance?

Eva Wiberg