The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters

Founded in 1857

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters (Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi) was founded at Oslo in 1857. It should not be confused with the Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters (Det Kongelige Norske Videnskabers Selskab) which is a much older society founded in Trondheim in 1760. The Royal Norwegian Society, however, played a role in the establishing of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. The first university in Norway was the Royal Frederick University which was established in Christiania (later renamed Oslo) in 1811. The fact that Christiania had a university but no academy while Trondheim had a learned society but no university was a major factor in people wanting to establish an academy in Christiania. The first serious attempt to establish an academy in Christiania was made in 1841 but there were difficulties such as a lack of financial support and a general feeling that at the time Norway did not have a sufficiently broad scientific base to merit the founding of an academy. A scientific meeting which took place in Christiania in 1844, however, proved an important step [5]:-
The meeting, held in Christiania 11-18th July 1844, was the first scientific congress ever to take place in Norway. To the small Norwegian scientific community it was a great occasion - the implicit recognition that Norway was now, if still not an equal, at long last an independent member of the Scandinavian academic community. The young Norwegian state itself took pride in the event, as did the residents of the capital. The general excitement may be measured by the fact that the grant proposal from the government to support the meeting was increased by the national assembly (Stortinget), an unprecedented action from a political body traditionally extremely restrictive on state expenditure. The meeting took place in a comfortably warm and sunny Christiania. From Norway there were 99 participants, 65 from the capital alone; from Denmark 39, from Sweden 33. The total attendance was 176.
This congress gave Christiania the confidence to move forward and the Professor of Medicine, Frantz Christian Faye (1806-1890), came up with both the initiative and the finance to found the 'Videnskabsselskabet i Christiania' which was inaugurated on 3 May 1857. One of the founder members of the Academy was the mathematician and politician Ole Jacob Broch. Later 'Christiania' was changed to 'Kristiania' after the city made the change in 1877. In the 20th century the name was changed again, this time to 'The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters of Kristiania', and in 1924 'Kristiania' was removed from the name, only shortly before the city of Kristiania was renamed Oslo.

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters did not flourish during the 19th century, and although it continued to add to Norwegian academic life it had little financial support. The Academy was designed to promote research, make connections with the scientific community world-wide and, perhaps most importantly, to begin to publish Norwegian research for an international scientific audience. Norwegian scientists now had opportunities, which they did not have at the country's only university, to publish original scholarly works. In this way, the Academy helped establish Norwegian science in an international arena. Perhaps, however, the lack of finances was a major factor in their decision not to publish papers that Sophus Lie was writing in the 1870s. Lie and Ludwig Sylow, however, received support from the Academy to publish Niels Henrik Abel's complete works, the Academy having applied to the Norwegian Parliament for funding for the project. The first volume was published in 1881.

It was the geologist Waldemar Christofer Brøgger (1851-1940) who turned round the finances of the Academy. His Royal Society of London obituary states [7]:-
Brøgger was remarkable among the geologists of Europe for the great range of his acquirements: equally distinguished as mineralogist, petrographer, palaeontologist and stratigrapher he occupied a unique position in the scientific circles of Norway and was for many years the central and leading personality in the Academy of Sciences at Oslo. ... Beyond the realm of science his wide interests and public spirit were extended in the service of his colleagues and countrymen as the first Rector of Oslo University (1907-1911) and as member of the Storthing (1907-1909), and it is due largely to his personality, initiative and outstanding executive ability that numerous public funds were established for education and research. Of these the most important is the Nansen Fund administered by the Norwegian Academy.
Brøgger's aim was to develop independent research institutions in Norway modelled on foreign, especially Swedish, examples, where the country's foremost researchers could devote themselves to their research without having to spend their time on teaching and examination work. As well as putting the Academy's finances on a strong footing, he also helped the Academy develop its identity through the acquisition of Hans Rasmus Astrup's magnificent Villa on Drammensveien. Hans Rasmus Astrup (1831-1898) was a highly successful businessman who became the Minister of Labour in the Norwegian Government in 1885. He employed the architect Herman Major Backer to built a home for his family as well as to serve as a house to entertain prominent people. The Villa was completed in 1887 and after Astrup's death in 1898, two of his daughters, Ebba and Elisabeth, inherited it. Brøgger acquired the Villa for the Academy from the daughters in 1911 thus consolidating its identity as a cultural institution and driving force for Norwegian research development.

By the mid 1930s the Academy rightly considered itself as the central body for Norwegian science. After World War II the Academy continued to play a major role in the development of Norwegian scientific research. It was through pressure from the Academy that the basic research-oriented Norwegian Research Council was set up in 1949. Political and bureaucratic pressures for research that resulted in immediate financial benefits to the country meant that during the 1960s the Academy lost much of its influence. From the late 1960s, the Academy of Sciences appeared not only as an institution without particular practical significance, but it was also seen simply as the defender of an aging academic elite's nostalgic, conservative and out-dated views on research and on research policy. At the beginning of the 1970s, the academy was also close to being reduced to a negligible and purely symbolic entity, ironically largely due to the Norwegian Research Council which it had played a large role in setting up.

The Academy gained a new lease of life from the late 1980s. The establishment of the Centre for Basic Research at the Norwegian Academy of Sciences in 1992 was an important step.

The Academy is divided into two classes, one for mathematics and the natural sciences, and one for the historical and philosophical sciences:-
The main purpose of the Academy is the advancement of science and scholarship in Norway. It provides a national forum of communication within and between the various learned disciplines, and it represents Norwegian science vis-á-vis foreign academies and international organisations.
The Academy consists of 219 Norwegian and 183 foreign members. It has a governing board of nine officials, including a President, Vice President and Secretary General.

The Academy has become even more important in the 21st century with the awarding of international prizes on a par with the Nobel Prizes.

The Abel Prize

The Abel Prize for excellent scientific work in mathematics is awarded every year, with prize money of 6 million Norwegian crowns. The Niels Henrik Abel Memorial Fund was initiated by the Norwegian Parliament in 2002 and consists of 200 million crowns. The revenue is given to The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters which is given the responsibility for the selection of the prize winner and organising the Abel Prize events. The Academy's website states [6]:-
The Abel Prize is an international prize for outstanding scientific work in the field of mathematics, including mathematical aspects of computer science, mathematical physics, probability, numerical analysis and scientific computing, statistics, and also applications of mathematics in the sciences. The prize recognizes contributions of extraordinary depth and influence to the mathematical sciences. Such work may have resolved fundamental problems, created powerful new techniques, introduced unifying principles or opened up major new fields of research. The intent is to award prizes over the course of time in a broad range of fields within the mathematical sciences. In addition to honouring outstanding mathematicians, the Abel Prize shall contribute towards raising the status of mathematics in society and stimulating the interest of children and young people in mathematics.
The first award was made in 2003. For a list of the winners of the Abel Prize, see THIS LINK.

The Kavli Prizes

The Academy's website gives the following information about these prizes [6]:-
The Academy has also been given the responsibility for The Kavli Prize in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience, which was awarded for the first time in 2008. The Kavli Prize was established in 2005 and is a partnership between the Kavli Foundation in the US, the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research and the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. The Kavli Prize for each of the three scientific prizes consists of 1 million dollar and is awarded every two years. The Kavli Prize laureates receive a gold medal and a diploma in addition to the prize money.

Visit the society website.

References (show)

  1. L Amundsen, Det Norske videnskaps-akademi i Oslo, 1857-1957 (I kommisjon hos Aschehoug, Oslo, 1957-60).
  2. K G Helsvig, Elitisme på norsk. Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi 1945-2007 (Novus, 2007).
  3. Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi.
  4. K G Helsvig, Fortidslevning eller moderniserende elite? Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi etter 150 år, in Jan Eivind Myhre, John Peter Collett and Jon Skeie, Knowledge Conditions. Anniversary of Edgeir Benum (Vidar Publishing House, 2009), 218-237.
  5. G Hestmark, "A primitive country of rocks and people" - R I Murchison's Silurian campaign in Norway, 1844, Norsk Geologisk Tidsskrift 88 (2) (2008), 117-141.
  6. Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters website.
  7. C E Tilly, Waldemar Christopher Brögger, 1851-1940, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 3 (10) (1941), 502-517.

Last Updated September 2018