Successful Letten Prize Days

f_Ahh5BR_400x40012-13 September 2018 the Young Academy of Norway, the Letten Foundation and Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo joined forces to celebrate the inaugural Letten Prize, awarded to Indian legal scholar Tarunabh Khaitan. Over the course of two days, a seminar on how research can solve global challenges and prize ceremony were held at the University of Oslo. A festive and colourful dinner at Hotel Continental marked the end of the very first Letten Prize Days. Member of the the Young Academy of Norway and the Letten Prize Committee, Katerini T. Storeng reports from the Letten Prize Days:

Major new Prize for young researcher awarded to Indian equality law expert

Tarunabh Khaitan, a lawyer from India, was awarded the Norwegian-based prize, worth 2 million NOK, or roughly 185000 GBP on September 13, for his contribution to addressing the structural inequalities that undermine social and economic development.

Khaitan´s work was cited in the Indian Supreme Court’s recent historic judgment decriminalizing gay sex, repealing a law dating from British colonial times.

This is one example of how his work has contributed directly to changing the interpretation of discrimination and minority rights, with implications beyond the LGBT community to other minorities discriminated on the basis of religion, caste or gender.

“It makes you proud to be Indian when your institutions do the right thing,” he told his audience at an award seminar in Oslo last week, commenting that he couldn’t have written the judgement better himself even if he had tried”.

The implications of this ruling extend far beyond India, however, not least to all the other Commonwealth countries that are still grappling with the consequences of an inherited British Penal Code that is inherently discriminatory.

Letten Prize 33

Tarunabh Khaitan receiving the Letten Prize. From left: Magnus Aronsen (Chair of the Young Academy of Norway), Borghild Roald (Chair of the Letten Prize Board), winner Tarunabh Khaitan and Katerini T. Storeng (member of the Letten Prize Committee). Photo Øyvind Aukrust. 

Mirroring the unsung heroes of international development

In many ways, Khaitan´s story mirrors that of a great many other unsung heroes of international development: Growing up in small-town, India, Khaitan’s life might have turned out very differently were it not for a serendipitous exposure to unwanted prospectus for law school that opened up a window of opportunity for addressing the stark inequalities of Indian society – a country where wealth is highly concentrated and discrimination in private employment and housing is legally permitted.

Today, Khaitan is Associate Professor of Law at Oxford, currently on leave to work at the University of Melbourne. Researching across the fields of law, political philosophy and ethics, he is a distinguished academic, recognized for his work on discrimination law. However, as a member of the Letten Prize selection committee, what impressed me most about Khaitan was his strong commitment to not only to understanding, but also to combatting the mechanisms that propagate violence and discrimination based on gender, sexuality, religion and caste.

One of the things that marks Khaitan’s work out is the way in which he has consistently engaged with civil society, politicians and other lawyers. He has helped to shift the conversation on discrimination in India and beyond, and demonstrated what academic research with societal relevance can look like. This is exactly the sort work that the Letten prize was established to support.

Letten Prize 34

Tarunabh Khaitan in conversation with master of ceremony Asta B. Lydersen. Photo Øyvind Aukrust. 

A prize for excellent research with societal impact

The prize itself is a novel initiative by the Young Academy of Norway, of which I am a member, and the Letten Foundation. It seeks explicitly to recognize the contribution of younger researchers in addressing global challenges across the fields of health, environment, development and equality. In doing so, it honours the legacy of Letten Saugstad, a Norwegian doctor and researcher who, until her death in 2014, fought for her conviction that health, environment and equality in all aspects of human life is key to a sustainable development and a better future for all.

As this year´s awardee, Khaitan was selected from among over 200 candidates – young researchers representing every continent and academic disciplines ranging from chemistry to anthropology. Unusually, because this new global prize will be distributed bi-annually, Khaitan will return in two years, at the moment of the next award, to report on what he has been able to do with the award.

Prize to be used to launch the ‘Indian Equality Law Program’ 

Khaitan will use his prize to launch the ‘Indian Equality Law Program’ at the Melbourne Law School, with an agenda for research training, engagement and dissemination. As Khaitan wrote in his motivation letter for the Letten Prize, India’s democratic institutions, albeit flawed, offer the possibility of change. By training a critical mass of equality scholars, the program he envisions can create a real impact.

The Letten Prize committee hopes that this, and the other awards it seeks to make, will raise public awareness of how research can be used to solve global human development challenges like the ones Khaitan has been addressing in his work.

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

Register for the Letten Prize Days!


The program for the Letten Prize Days 12-13 September is ready! Events take place at Gamle Festsal, at the University of Oslo. 

Check out the full seminar program and the award ceremony on the Letten Prize Days.

The events are open to the public and free to attend. For practical purposes, registration is required. Please register using the registration link