With Royalty in Room, Rutgers Professor Takes Seat at Nobels
Tomas Sjöström Plays Key Role in Selection of Laureate
In between grading papers and giving final exams, economics professor Tomas Sjöström fit in a quick trip to Sweden during the waning days of the fall semsester.
But it was no vacation.
He joined dignitaries from around the world, including the King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, for a series of high-profile lectures and ceremonies in Stockholm.
"I have to figure out how to rent a tuxedo," he said before leaving.
Sjöström serves on the committee that bestows the world's most prestigious award for economics: the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. After six years as an associate on the committee, Sjöström completed his first year in 2014 as a full member–an eminent position for which he's expected, indeed, entitled, to attend the gala events of Nobel Week in celebration of the winners in physics, medicine, chemistry, literature, as well as the laureate for economics, Jean Tirole.
During the second week of December, Stockholm was aglow with lectures, concerts, and banquets. Sjöström attended the two signature events on Wednesday, December 10: the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony and the Nobel Banquet. The banquet, which is attended by the King Carl, is highly formal, with men required to wear white tie and tails, and women required to don evening gowns.
"This is the perfect time to dress up and look like royalty!" Nobelprize.org says.
Sjöström, professor of economics in the School of Arts and Sciences, who has been at Rutgers for a decade, takes it all in stride.
"Of course it's all very exciting, and it's an honor to be involved," he says. "But the most important thing is that it's a celebration of science."
His colleagues in New Jersey Hall on the College Avenue Campus are impressed. They say the Nobel connection is nothing short of extraordinary. The Nobel Prize Ceremony in Stockholm draws dignitaries from around the world.
"To actually be in this small select group that's making a decision of this magnitude is pretty special," says economics department chair Thomas J. Prusa. "There aren't many U.S. institutions that can claim to have faculty so heavily-involved in the Nobels, and we at Rutgers are very proud to have that."
Sjöström, a native of Sweden, is well-known for his work in economics game theory. He was elected to The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the Nobels in chemistry, physics, and economics. The prize in economics is known as the "memorial prize" because it was not one of the original categories established by Alfred Nobel in his will of 1895. Nevertheless, the prize is based on the same criteria stipulated by Nobel, who called for "prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind."
Choosing a laureate is an honor, and it's also hard work: a year-around commitment that requires intensive study and discussion.
"It's painstaking," Sjöström said. "You have to get it right."
Typically, the committee begins deliberating toward the end of the calendar year, coming up with a short list and making their suggestions to the full academy in the fall. The final decision is made by the full academy. The laureates are announced in October.
"Economics is a very broad field so you have to do quite a bit of reading to find out who are the best in different categories," Sjöström said. "We read as much as we can about as many subjects as we can. We can ask experts within fields to write reports and then we read those reports."
The committee must also oversee the development of voluminous background material that delineates the laureate's work for multiple audiences: scholars, journalists, and laypeople.
Sjöström travels to Stockholm about dozen times a year for meetings, often flying back home the next day and rushing from the airport to make class.
"Usually I teach in the afternoon, so I fly into Newark and rush straight from the taxi or train to the classroom," he said. "Sometimes I literally don't even have time to go to the office."
Prusa praised Sjöström's dedication to teaching, saying the professor rarely misses a class, despite the grueling travel schedule. "You see him on Monday and then on Wednesday he's like: 'Just got back from Sweden.'''
It's all worthwhile on that final day when a laureate is chosen, and the phone call is made.
"To recognize people who have benefited humanity, it's nice to be able to do," Sjöström said. "It's very fulfilling to follow the process through to the end. You feel pride when the prize is announced, and you're like 'wow, this is really a person who deserves the prize.'''
Read more about Tomas Sjöström here.