Holberg prize faces criticism

07.11.2006
"The winner of this year‘s Holberg Prize represents a scientific orientation that has proven to be dead," says professor of social sciences Jon Elster. He thinks that some Norwegian researchers value politeness more than academic quality.
The internationally recognised Norwegian scientist Jon Elster pronounced his criticism of this year‘s Holberg Prize winner Shmuel N. Eisenstadt in a lecture at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters last week. Elster is a member of the Collège de France in Paris, where he replaced the late Pierre Bourdieu. He is also a professor of social sciences at Columbia University in New York. In his lecture Elster argued that Norwegian researchers value politeness and their own prestige more that academic quality. Elster points to the 2004 and 2006 winners as a result of this.

"I nominated Thomas Schelling for the Holberg Prize. He did not win, but that is fine because he was awarded the Nobel Prize the year after. It is worse that the first winner, in 2004, was Julia Kristeva, a nototious French charlatan," Elster writes in a letter to Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.

Objective: Prestigious award
The objective of the Holberg prize, which passed the Norwegian parliament in 2003, was to create an international research award in the fields not included in Alfred Nobel‘s will. The Holberg Prize includes the fields of law, theology, social sciences and the humanities.

Elster now thinks that the prestige of the Holberg Prize is falling, due to the constitution of the committee and their choice of prize winners. The University of Bergen appoints the members of the Holberg committee. Three of four members are Norwegian, the fourth is Danish. Elster argues that the members are more aware of their own academic traditions and personal contacts than finding prize winners among the international scientific elite. However, he finds last year‘s winner Jürgen Habermas a good choice.

"Low citation frequency"
On the contrary, the winners of 2004 Julia Kristeva and 2006 Shmuel Eisenstadt are harming the prestige of the Holberg Prize according to Elster‘s Aftenposten article:
"Shmuel Eisenstadt belongs to the B-team of international social science. It is not easy to prove this allegation, however, the following numbers give an indication: If you go to Google.scholar.com, you see that Eisenstadt‘s most cited work is cited 84 times. If you go to two social scientists that are clearly members of the A-team, John Ferejohn and Adam Przeworski, their most cited works are cited 455 and 534 times accordingly."

"The award for Kristeva was particularly scandalous. It is an open secret that much of the French-inspired research in the humanities is close to being categorised as rubbish," Elster continues in his Aftenposten article.

Holberg committee: "In a phase of establishment"
"Elster of course has the right to think what he wants," comments professor of theology Turid Karlsen Seim, a member of the Holberg committee, to Aftenposten.

The Board and committee behind the Holberg Prize do not comment their awards.
"We are still in a phase of establishing the prize and it is important that it is relatively easy to physically convene the members of the committee, and to hold common meetings for the Board and committee. This far, we have not felt the need to question the integrity or academic excellence of the committee members," says professor Jan Fridthjof Bernt, Chair of the Board of the Ludvig Holberg Memorial Fund.

"However, I note the objections of Elster, and I would have preferred him to pronounce them earlier, in order for us to have taken them into considerations as we recently re-appointed three of the committee members.

The amount of the Holberg Prize is p.t. of 4,5 million NOK. The University of Bergen appoints the Board and a committee that consists of four excellent researchers from the fields covered by the Prize. The winner is appointed by the University of Bergen on the basis of the recommendation of the Holberg committee.
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