Nowhere in his last will did Alfred Nobel himself mention any prize in the so-called “economic sciences.” This prize was in fact created by the Swedish Central Bank in 1968 – more than 70 years after Nobel’s death. The cleverly named “Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel” was of course too much of a mouthful to avoid its obvious destiny of being shortened to a “Nobel Prize in Economics”. Understandably so in popular speech, but more worrisome by the media and other institutions of critical and investigative reputation.
In 1968, Sveriges Riksbank (Sweden’s central bank) established the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prize. The Prize is based on a donation received by the Nobel Foundation in 1968 from Sveriges Riksbank on the occasion of the Bank’s 300th anniversary.
– The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel
Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2013. Web. 12 Aug 2013.
The nomination criteria, selection process, prize money, and presentation of the prize in economics are all carefully matched to those of the Nobel Prizes, to the point where they are hard to distinguish from each other. And so, for many years has the late coming prize in economics basked in the reflected glory of the five actual Nobel Prizes, the ones specified by Alfred Nobel in his testament. Never without controversy though, as noted by the former chairman of the Nobel Foundation:
Every now and then there are proposals to establish additional Nobel Prizes, for example in Mathematics or Environmental science. The foundation as well as the prize juries have rejected such requests. They consider themselves bound by the testament, wondering what it would lead to if new Nobel Prizes or equivalents were created. […] However, this principle has been departed from on one occasion, regarding the prize in economics. This prize must not be treated as a Nobel Prize and is for this reason titled Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. […] There was considerable doubt among the Nobel committees about accepting the prize. Propaganda activities were intense, especially from the Governor of the Central Bank, Per Åsbrink. […] The prize in economics has continued causing controversy.
– Lars Gyllensten, former chairman of the Nobel Foundation
Minnen, bara minnen (Stockholm: Albert Bonniers förlag, 2000), page 281
(Translated from Swedish)
A letter was – by the author of this website – recently sent to the Nobel Foundation for further clarification on the issue, the central questions being these:
Do you consider it proper for an organization to describe a laureate of the Prize in Economics as a "Nobel Prize winner", or to describe the Prize in Economics as "the Nobel Prize in Economics"? What do you prefer when it comes to organizations' public messaging regarding this?
The reply from the Nobel Foundation reads as follows:
Neither “the Nobel Prize in Economics” nor “Nobel Prize winner” are considered to be formally accurate designations by the Nobel Foundation or the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (the prize-awarding institution) in regards to the Prize in Economic Sciences. It does happen that media use these terms when referring to the Prize in Economic Sciences or Laureates in Economic Sciences.
As for our preferences when it comes to public messaging, we refer to the formal designations: that of the prize being The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, or in short form: Prize in Economic Sciences; the formal designation of a recipient of the prize being Recipient(s) of Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, or in short form, Laureate(s) in Economic Sciences.
The last will of Alfred Nobel clearly states the five areas in which a prize is to be awarded, namely physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace:
The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses. The prizes for physics and chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; that for physiological or medical work by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm; that for literature by the Academy in Stockholm, and that for champions of peace by a committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storting. It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not.
– “Full text of Alfred Nobel’s Will”
Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2013. Web. 12 Aug 2013.
Alfred Nobel did not mention any prize in economics.
For this simple reason, there is no Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.
A summarized version of the above was sent to all previous recipients of the prize in economics, of which about a dozen replied, with varying degrees of amusement. At least two academic institutions updated their websites, changing phrases such as “Nobel Prize in Economics” to the more proper “Prize in Economics”, as a direct result of receiving this letter. Here are some excerpts on what the laureates had to say:
I am, of course, aware that the Prize in Economic Sciences is not a Nobel Prize. […]
I personally have not encountered any confusion about the matter.
[W]hat it is that you are insinuating. Is the Prize in Economic Sciences inferior to the “real” Nobel Prizes because it was not envisaged by Alfred Nobel himself?
Everyone I know knows that it is a memorial prize.
It is in fact a “Nobel prize”, just not established and financed in the same way as the others.
We are aware of this distinction and that the prize for economics was added later.
Most of my colleagues and the administration at Berkeley make no distinction.
Of course, I am aware of the distinction.
Of course, I am aware of the background and of the official name of the “Nobel Prize” in economic sciences.
I haven’t been troubled by this, which seems to be well known.
Thank you for your note; we are aware of this situation.
Still, you are right in pointing out inaccuracies on our website, which is why I have changed several of the webpages to reflect the official name of the Prize.
We have updated our information, thank you.
The common view among laureates of the prize in economics is that its origin and status versus the Nobel Prizes is known and all clear. But did you know about its background?
More or less covertly did the prize in economics enter the minds of the general public, increasing the field’s credibility and prestige. Which may even be dangerous, according to economist godfather; none other than Friedrich Hayek:
[I]f I had been consulted whether to establish a Nobel Prize in economics, I should have decidedly advised against it. […] One reason was that I feared that such a prize, as I believe is true of the activities of some of the great scientific foundations, would tend to accentuate the swings of scientific fashion. […] [T]he Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess. This does not matter in the natural sciences. Here the influence exercised by an individual is chiefly an influence on his fellow experts; and they will soon cut him down to size if he exceeds his competence. But the influence of the economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally. There is no reason why a man who has made a distinctive contribution to economic science should be omnicompetent on all problems of society – as the press tends to treat him till in the end he may himself be persuaded to believe. […] I am not sure that it is desirable to strengthen the influence of a few individual economists by such a ceremonial and eye-catching recognition of achievements, perhaps of the distant past. […]
– “Friedrich August von Hayek – Banquet Speech”
Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2013. Web. 2 Oct 2013.
(P.S. Some of Alfred Nobel’s heirs have for years been very unhappy about the prize.)