My return to Oslo – an encounter with science and humanity

Reflections on the Letten Prize by Prof. Christian Hellmich, Co-director of JA-ÖAW.

During the Letten Prize Days we were lucky enough to have the wonderful company of representatives from some of The Young Academy of Norway’s sister academies. We are grateful to Prof. Christian Hellmich Co-director of JA-ÖAW for sharing his reflections on the days! Thanks and enjoy the read.


csm_foto_hellmich_01_9f004dc9f5Having travelled extensively throughout Norway, with tent and interrail pass, in the summers of 1990 and 1992, it took me more than a quarter of a century to return to one of the most impressive European capitals: the home of the Nobel Peace Prize, formerly known as Christiania; Oslo.

In the summer of 2018, the Young Academy of Norway had invited the Young Academy of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (JA-ÖAW), to send a representative to the award ceremony and celebration of the Inaugural Letten Prize, scheduled for September 13, 2018. And as all my fellow co-directors of the JA-ÖAW had other, more urgent, commitments at that time, it was me who arrived, just on time at 2 p.m., in the elegant and uplifting surroundings of a 19th century architectural icon: the Gamle Festsal of the University of Oslo. Seconds later, I was embraced by crisp and clear, yet emotionally moving sounds played with great devotion, by a string quartett of four students from the Baratt Due Institute of Music, the finest of its kind in Norway.

With this, the scene was set to remember the benefactor of the Letten foundation: Prof. Letten F. Saugstad (1925-2014), an unparalleled pioneer at the cross roads of psychology and neurology, working throughout her life towards an embetterment of human health in the broadest sense; across a multitude of scientific, geographical, and cultural borders. Her legacy continues through Letten foundation-enabled research centers, which focus on health and disease of the brain (as part of the University of Oslo), as well as on health and education for the Mother Child Program in Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Only a few months ago, the Letten foundation had joined forces with the Young Academy of Norway, in order to make Prof. Letten F. Saugstad’s legacy known at a bolder scale. The result had been the worldwide announcement of the first edition of the Letten Prize, to be awarded to individuals who contribute “in the fields of health, development, environment and equality in all aspects of human life.”

Letten Prize 31

Tarunabh Khaitan receiving the very first Letten Prize – 13 September 2018. Photo: Øyvind Aukrust 

Prof. Katerini Storeng, current board member of the Young Academy of Norway, reported that more than 200 highly qualified researchersfrom all over the world had applied. She described the the challenges the Young Academy Members and an international advisory board were facing when identifying only five finalists. Eventually, it was the Oxford- and Melbourne-affiliated Indian law scholar Prof. Tarunabh Khaitan, who turned out as the truly deserving winner. He is a pioneer in the intellectual perception of how discrimination of minorities works, and he has become a game changer in the legislation of post-colonial Commonwealth nations such as India.

From a personal perspective, I would consider Dr. Nassim El Achi from the American University of Beirut, one of the four remaining runners-up, as an equivally deserving candidate for the prize. She excels in chemistry and environmental management research; in order to supply Syrian refugees in Lebanon with what they need most urgently: clean water. She develops strategies for implementing rainwater harvesting technology in a new societal, cultural, and behavioral context.  This is probably the most coining and radical realization of what I know as the overarching motto of my own university: technology for people – and even more so of the great motto of Prof. Letten F. Saugstad: thriving for the embetterment of human health.

In later discussions with members of the Young Academy of Norway, I learned about the enthusiasm, the energy, the optimism, and the great ambition of this now three year old institution, to help shaping science and society in Norway, towards a better future. This reminded me of the tales I know from the founding days of the then Young Curia of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW), which – meanwhile renamed to Young Academy – currently prepares the celebration of its 10th anniversary. Over these years the Young Academy has taken a fully established role as integral part of the General Assembly of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, has provided important incentives for long-term decisions in Austrian science policy, and takes every effort to maintain its status as a “class-free”, “border-less”, and largely autonomous body of excellence in science and society, both within the confines of the ÖAW, and beyond.

I am happy to take home, from my memorable September 13 in the heart of Oslo, the “spirit of Letten” as it was repeatedly referred to during the celebration: a spirit namely, of knowledge and love – of science and humanity.

Oslo and Vienna, September 14, 2018
Prof. Christian Hellmich
Co-director of JA-ÖAW
Director of the IMWS – Institute for Mechanics of Materials and Structures
of the TU Wien – Vienna University of Technology, Vienna, Austria

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