The nomination and decision process

Alfred Nobel’s will decrees that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awards the Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry. Two Nobel committees, comprised of members with expertise in the relevant area, work to find, investigate and evaluate nominees for the prizes. However, it is the Academy as a whole that makes the decision. 

The Nobel year for Physics and Chemistry
Illustration: Johan Jarnestad/Kungl. Vetenskapsakademien

Work on deciding the Nobel Laureates in Physics and Chemistry starts early. In September, the committees send invitations for proposals for Nobel Prize nominees for the following year. The invitations are sent to thousands of specially selected university professors and other scholars, all around the globe. Members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and previous Nobel Laureates may also propose candidates. However, it is not possible to nominate oneself or to spontaneously submit a proposal without receiving an invitation.

Reviewing the nominees

Each Nobel Committee then reviews the submitted proposals. The committees are made up of members who usually come from the classes for physics or chemistry at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (in general, the committees must have five members, but a couple of co-opted members are also appointed for a specific period). Members are elected for three-year periods and the committees have a term limit of nine years. The committees also consult a relatively large number of specially appointed international experts to evaluate various areas and candidates of potential interest. The committees hold around ten full-day meetings every year.

Who can receive the Prize?

According to Alfred Nobel’s will, the Nobel Prize in Physics is awarded to the person who made the most important discovery or invention in the field of physics and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to the person who made the most important chemical discovery or improvement.

A great deal of research is nowadays conducted in large research groups and in collaborative projects. Identifying the key person(s) who have been the vital driving force behind the rewarded discoveries, inventions and improvements is therefore demanding work.

A Nobel Prize may be shared equally between two achievements that are both considered worthy of a prize. Totally, a maximum of three persons can share the prize.

How the Academy makes the decision

The Nobel committees compile reports and write an extensive statement, resulting in their proposal for that year’s prize. The material is presented to the appropriate class, physics or chemistry, and discussed on several occasions. The classes may request changes or present a different proposal to those of the committees.

After the position of the classes is clarified, the committees present the proposals to the members of the Academy at a meeting in early October. All Swedish members (and foreign members who are resident in Sweden) present at the meeting may vote on the proposals. The final decision about this years’ Nobel prizes is then made. Immediately after the meeting, the Secretary General calls the Nobel Laureates, and thereafter, at noon on the same day the decision was made, it is announced at a press conference.

Confidential for 50 years

Work on the Nobel committees takes place in great secrecy. The statutes of the Nobel Foundation state that information about nominations, discussions, evaluations and other material must remain confidential for fifty years. Only after this is it possible for researchers to access the documents stored at the Centre for History of Science at the Academy.