Scientists waiting for call to Nobel and super-stardom

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Shortly before 10.30 this morning, Professor Nils Ringertz of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm will pick up the telephone to tell one of the world's leading scientists that he or she has won the 1995 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

For the winner (the prize can actually be shared among up to three researchers), the award means scientific super-stardom. The mystique of the prize is such that the winners' words and opinions are widely reported and carry weight even on topics far removed from their scientific competence.

Today's announcement will be followed on Wednesday when the Swedish Academy of Sciences reveals the chemistry and the physics awards. This year each prize is worth seven million Swedish krona (pounds 1m).

The scientific Nobels have largely escaped the controversy which the literature prize sometimes attracts. According to Professor Sten Grillner, of the Karolinska's Nobel Assembly, "we are very glad. It has not happened because we have a long process. Each year the Assembly sends out to 3,000 researchers an offer to nominate candidates for the prize".

The request for nominations goes to learned societies, such as the US National Academy of Sciences and Britain's Royal Society, and on a two- yearly rotating basis to large universities such as Oxford, Harvard and Stanford, as well as less well-known ones on a longer cycle. "About 250 to 300 nominate every year," Prof Grillner said, and the nominations arrive at the end of January. "Many can immediately be seen not to be a very likely candidate."

The serious candidates are scrutinised by 15 professors from the Karolinska who write and commission detailed reports on each, before making a single recommendation to the Nobel Assembly, consisting of 50 out of the Karolinska's 150 professors. The whole process is exhaustive and obsessively secret. Even though the recommendation was decided before the end of last week, no hints emerge beforehand.

The fame of winning a Nobel prize stays with scientists for the rest of their career - often longer than the financial reward that goes with it.

Sir Aaaron Klug, director of the Laboratory of Molecular Medicine at Cambridge and joint Nobel chemistry prize winner in 1982, said the prize is the greatest accolade scientists can receive from their peers. "Other than that it didn't change my life all that much." He said his prize of about pounds 80,000 paid for "a new bicycle, among other things".

Sir John Vane, the pharmacologist at the William Harvey Research Institute in London, won his medicine Nobel in 1982 for his work on prostaglandins, natural chemicals in the body involved in pain response. Among the personal benefits of the prize, he said, is being able to get into restaurants "even if they are short of space". In addition, the prize raises the public's awareness of scientific achievements although a drawback is that "for every Nobel prize winner there are dozens of losers who should have got it in other fields".

Tony Hewish, the Cambridge radio astronomer who won his Nobel in 1974, said that professional prestige is the single greatest benefit of the prize. "It's just simply the honour of the thing. Who gets the prize depends very much on fate."