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August 31, 2012

Historical Echoes: What’s in a Name? The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel

Amy Farber, New York Fed Research Library

The official name for the economics prize is the “Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.” The other Nobel prizes are simply called “The Nobel Prize in [field]” or, for the Peace Prize, “The Nobel Peace Prize.” Why is the name of the economics prize so different from the other Nobel prizes?

According to a 2011 article, “Economics has met the enemy, and it is economics,” Nobel prizes in chemistry, physics, medicine, and the pursuit of peace were first awarded in 1901. There was no prize in economics for more than sixty years. By the late 1960s, the Central Bank of Sweden (the Sveriges Riksbank) decided that practice had to change. The Nobel family objected, so the Bank agreed to put up the money itself, making it the only prize to be funded by taxpayers. The first economics prize was awarded to Ragnar Frisch and Jan Tinbergen in 1969 by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden. The Riksbank’s website says of the prize:

Sveriges Riksbank’s Prize in Economic Sciences was established in connection with the Riksbank’s 300th anniversary in 1968. The prize is awarded every year to a person or persons in the field of economic sciences who have produced work of outstanding importance. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences appoints the prize-winner(s) according to the same principles as for the Nobel Prizes. The prize amount is also the same as for the Nobel Prizes, which in 2012 was set at 8 million Swedish kroner, and is paid by the Riksbank. If there is more than one winner, the prize amount is shared equally between them.

    Why, then, couldn’t it still be called “The Nobel Prize in Economics”? There’s evidence that Alfred Nobel very purposefully did not establish a prize in economics, as stated in this letter by his descendents. So the phrasing “Nobel Prize in” wasn’t an option. is the official website of the Nobel Prize, and it’s a truly fascinating place to explore. The Economics portion of the site has a full list of economics prize winners, a detailed list explaining why each recipient won, a Facts page, a Video Interviews page, and a Video Prize Lectures page. (“According to the Nobel Foundation statutes, the Nobel Laureates are required ‘to give a lecture on a subject connected with the work for which the prize has been awarded,’” notes the website.) If you enjoy extreme pomp and circumstance other than the British variety, you’ll find links on these pages to short videos of the winners accepting their prizes. The choreography varies from ceremony to ceremony. For example, Daniel L. McFadden accepts his prize in 2000 from His Majesty, the King of Sweden, Carl Gustaf the Sixteenth.

There are also some interesting stories about the notification process for the prize winners. According to, James A. Mirrlees, 1996 winner, asked politely for proof when he got the call from the committee informing him that he had won the prize. Reinhard Selton (1994) never got the call. He was out shopping with his wife, so the public knew before he did. Amartya Sen (1998) received his call at 5:00 a.m., and feared something terrible had happened. William Sharpe (1990) thought it was a hoax.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.

Amy Farber is a research librarian in the Research Services Function of the New York Fed’s Research and Statistics Group.

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