Nobel Prize team seeks to flout founder's will

WHEN WILHELM Rontgen won the first Nobel Prize in 1901 for his discovery of X-rays, he was given, besides the gold medal, 150,000 Swedish kronor - a sum worth roughly 20 times a university professor's salary, writes Julian Champkin.

Today he would get only a fraction of that. The Nobel Foundation, which bestows the world-famous prizes for scientists, writers and peacemakers, has fallen on hard times.

So concerned are the trustees that they are petitioning the Swedish government for permission to gamble on the stock exchange with what is left of Alfred Nobel's 1896 legacy.

He bestowed $3.6m for his prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and Peace and, paradoxically, the fund is now worth more than a third of a billion dollars. But only the interest can be used; and under the terms of his will the administrators can invest his fortune only in very safe but very low-yielding bonds.

Now Sweden faces a predicament: should the government ignore Nobel's wishes, and, if it does, what would happen if the trustees invested badly?

By 1920, inflation had reduced the value of the prizes to a quarter of their original worth. Exempted from tax in 1946, it still took until 1991 to restore their worth, says Michael Sohlman, director of the Nobel Foundation. He does not think even that is enough. "The aim is to increase the prize money in future years," he says.

Yet his efforts may be pointless. Few, if any, Nobel laureates are in it for the money.