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The Letten Prize: Perspective from a funder, Håkon Sandbakken, Letten Prize Coordinator 

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Image of a man in a sweater at left. "The Letten Prize: Perspective from a funder Håkon Sandbakken, Letten Prize Coordinator" followed by the Letten Prize symbol - a drawing of a globe.

Preface: We recently were made aware of the Letten Prize, a fantastic international award program for researchers working in health, development, environment and equality in all aspects of human life. Many thanks to Håkon Sandbakken for telling us more about this award intended for researchers (under 45 years of age) working to improve our world. Applications are due on February 6, 2023.  

Could you briefly share your career story and what you like most about working in your role?

My background is a many faceted one. I have a bachelor’s degree in political science, economics and philosophy and a master’s degree in innovation and knowledge production studies. In parallel, I was also into local politics, being elected as a representative in my local municipality. 

After graduation, I took a job as a coordinator for a basic research program at The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, and soon got the role as the Project Manager of The Abel Prize in Mathematics. 

The Young Academy of Norway shared offices with The Norwegian Academy, and coincidentally, they were a little late for hiring a new coordinator for the Letten Prize. I simply suggested to hire me, as I had years of experience with managing a major science award. Later I became a board member of the Letten Foundation as well, primarily due to my interest in finance, as well as my intimate knowledge about the Letten Prize. 

The best moment of my job thus far was being involved with bringing the news to our last Letten Prize winner over zoom. You can watch the exact moment she was told that she was the winner of the Letten Prize on YouTube. 

Tell us about the Letten Prize? What year did this funding initiative start and why?  

The main purpose of the Letten Prize is to recognize young researchers’ (below 45 years old) efforts to use their research to make the world a better place. We also strive to raise public awareness of how research can be used to solve global human development challenges. 

The prize is international, meaning anyone can apply regardless of what country you are from or where you live. 

The prize money is 2.5 MNOK (~235 000 USD), 25% for personal use and 75% for funding research. 

The Letten Prize came about as a collaboration between the Letten Foundation and The Young Academy of Norway. The Letten Foundation is named after Letten F. Saugstad, a remarkable woman and Norwegian professor within the health field. Well before she died, she established the foundation to promote science and human development. 

Tell us more about the goals of the Letten Foundation and the Young Academy of Norway? 

The Letten Foundation is mainly sponsoring the Letten Prize and The Letten Centre for Brain Research at The University of Oslo, Norway. The goal is to be a reliable partner for funding important research. 

The Young Academy of Norway has several goals, e.g. to be an active part of the public conversation in Norway, making the perspectives of young researchers known in relevant debates.  

 
And Letten prize applicants can be working in any country globally? 
 

Yes.

 
Any other requirements or restrictions for applicants to consider? 
 

The criteria for applying are broad, and it is that way on purpose. We do not want to turn down an amazing proposal because of technicalities. However, the criteria listed are absolute. You will not be considered, for example, if you are over the age of 45. 

 
How many Letten Prizes are distributed annually and in what amount? 
 

The Letten Prize is awarded every other year to one young scientist. The prize amount can be regulated but is 2.5 MNOK (~235,000 USD) now. In 2018 and 2021, it was 2 MNOK. 

 
What types of projects are you looking to fund and in what disciplines?
 

We want proposals form all disciplines, especially research that crosses discipline boundaries. The important thing is to make a strong case of how your research will benefit humanity. 

 
How must applicants allocate the funds? 
 

25% of the prize money is for personal use, and the winner can do as they please with the money. 75% must go toward funding the research proposal they outlined in the application. 

In your opinion, what makes a strong Letten Prize application?  

I would say you have a good case if: 

  • You have previous research impacting the world in some way, or something else that highlights your potential as a researcher. 
  • You do a good job of explaining how your research will impact the world and why it is important. 

Many of the researchers that we speak with are interested to know about “success rates of particular funding opportunities” – what do you think about this measure in your line of work? 

This is a complicated discussion, and I will not go in depth discussing the topic in broad terms. Instead, I can reveal how many applications we received in the last call for applications. We received 50 applications. Among them the Committee awarded one with the prize and two runners-up. If you count the honorary title runner-up as success, you have a success rate of 6%. 

Are there any common mistakes that applicants make? 

Mistakes are not common. If I remember correctly, we only disqualified three applications in the last round, and if memory serves correct, it was because they were just above our age limit of 45 years old. 

A less serious, but common mistake is to forget to combine the application to one PDF file. We usually don’t disqualify for this reason, but it does make my job a bit harder. 

Any final recommendations for prospective applicants for the 2023 submission period? 

  • Do not be discouraged from applying because your field has not been recognized yet. The Letten Prize is still a young science award, and the fields we recognize are not limited to those recognized in the past. 
  • Keep your language simple. Know that the members selection committee may not share your background. Try to keep your language easy to understand for people outside your field.  
  • Start sketching early and take five minutes from time to time thinking about what you want your application to contain.  

Acknowledgment

Thank you, Håkon, for sharing your funder’s perspective with us!

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