Fixing what Nobel forgot

Perhaps there’s something in the water that causes Swedes to endow prizes:

A lucrative, international classical music prize has been established, thanks to late Swedish opera star Birgit Nilsson, who died in 2005.

The Birgit Nilsson Foundation announced Friday the launch of a $1 million US prize to honour outstanding achievements in international opera and concert performance.

According to organizers, Nilsson herself had planned for the creation of the prize years before her passing and had even selected the first winner — who will be named in early 2009.

They added that the singer had placed the inaugural winner’s name in a sealed envelope and requested that the prize not be announced until three years after her death.

I’ve long wondered about the point of such awards. I know a few people who’ve gotten high-profile prizes – my Dad’s first cousin, Fred Reines, won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1995, and a close colleague of Dad’s, Robert Sapolsky, won a MacArthur award a few years ago. Both were richly deserved. (Dad received a couple of less high-profile awards in his time as well).

But would they have not done the work for which they were awarded in the absence of such awards? There are certainly instances in the history of science when topics were tackled in part because everyone recognized that whoever solved the problem would likely win a Nobel. But they were high-profile topics anyway (otherwise they wouldn’t have been worthy of the Nobel committee’s attention), and whoever solved them would be guaranteed riches and fame (or what passes for that in the scientific community), Nobel or –  no Bel.

I suspect that the same is true of this new prize. People don’t do good work in the arts because of the chance of winning a prize. As some wit once wrote, “the only thing one needs to know about competitions is that Mozart never won one.”

If the purpose of the new prize is simply to recognize great work, there’s another problem. Even deciding who gets a Nobel is a notoriously subjective judgement, and at least there’s some consensus on what Nobel-worthy work looks like in the sciences. But choosing amongst “outstanding achievements in international opera and concert performance?” Good luck in convincing anyone outside of the award committee that the award committee got it right.

Let’s hope that Ms. Nilsson’s choice of the inaugural winner will provide some useful guidance, both to those who will award future prizes and those of us who are skeptical of the entire notion. In the interim, we can celebrate a world in which a soprano can become rich enough to endow a bi- (or perhaps tri-) annual $1 million award. She didn’t quite make it to von Karajan territory. But then who ever did but von Karajan?

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