Strong European Showing in Nobels; Is American Science in Danger?

globe.jpg[Aufmerksamkeit! Begrüßen Sie deutsche Freunde und Leser des Focus Wissenschafts-Community. Glückwünsche zu Profs Ertl und Grünberg auf dieser enormen Ehre!]
I’m intentionally being dramatic but an interesting discussion emerged in the comment thread of my post on the work of Germany’s Gerhard Ertl being recognized with this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry. One reader had a perception that the work of an American contributor to surface chemistry was being ignored. Dr Gerald Harbison followed up on this notion at his own blog, The Right Wing Professor.
Indeed, the three scientists that shared this year’s prize in physiology or medicine are all European, although two did most of their work in the US. Similarly, the two scientists sharing this year’s physics prize are French and German. (For sake of talking on what I know about, I have restricted this discussion to the prizes for chemistry, physics, and physiology or medicine.).
So, is there an anti-American sentiment in Stockholm? Or is European science being recognized appropriately for its traditional superiority? After all, my namesake, John Jacob Abel, went to Germany to learn his pharmacology before establishing departments at Michigan and Johns Hopkins.

Frankly, it’s tough to make any generalizations about this year – last year’s chemistry, physics, and phys/med prizes all went to Americans. The previous year, 2005, had Americans mixed in with a couple of Europeans, with medicine going to the most isolated large city on the planet (Perth, Australia) for Warren and Marshall’s paradigm-breaking work on H. pylori.
Some friends have asked me whether America’s increased restrictions on visas for foreign scientists might be having some effect. Remember though that most of these Nobelists did their work 20 to 40 years ago, with the exception of Mello and Fire, so today’s homeland security issues won’t have an effect on the Nobels for another 20-40 years. If anything, Europeans of the future will be winning Nobel prizes on their home turf instead of the US – and I’d say to watch out for Singapore, whose Biopolis and other institutes are recruiting some of the world’s best biomedical scientists.
However, there may indeed be an anti-American sentiment in Stockholm with the Iraq war dragging on and America’s poor international stature subconsciously influencing the deliberations. As a result, I’ll be very interested in who wins the Nobel Peace Prize. But I think this year may be a bit spurious with the concentration of Europeans, just as I wouldn’t draw conclusions about long-term hurricane trends from this season.
And how much do Americans really care about the Nobel prizes? In my radio market where a local Nobel recipient was named, the story was 3rd in the afternoon news program behind issues of the war and the next senatorial election.
But there are some things to be concerned about in American science. The funding of the individual, investigator-initiated grant is being threatened in the face of large “projects.” This year, NCI will cut by 3 percent the budgets of projects to which they are already committed (e.g., mine) to pool funds for other “deserving” projects.
There is also increased emphasis on documenting public benefit of one’s project at the earliest stages. Don’t get me wrong – I am all for accountability to the taxpaying public. However, most major advances in science and medicine come from serendipitous observations from seemingly unrelated fields. Tom Cech’s 1989 Nobel prize in chemistry (with Sidney Altman) on catalytic RNAs from a protozoan (Tetrahymena thermophilus) would, by his admission, not have been possible under today’s funding climate. The solution is to fund the best scientists to do the best science – certainly with an eye to future applications, but not as a short-term requirement.
The emphasis today in the US is how fast your academic science can pay off in terms of a drug or other patentable technology. The managers and officials overseeing such research units usually don’t stay around long enough to see the consequences of their strategy; instead, they collect their bonuses and move on to the next organization.
But is the situation really any different in post-millennial Europe? Do European scientists, or scientists from other continents, have more freedom to do “pure” science? I don’t know – and I’d love to hear from commenters around the world. My German colleagues who apply for funding to the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) tell me that there is increased emphasis on the impact factor of their publications in competing for funding with decreased emphasis on the inherent quality of the proposed science. Nevertheless, there remains a clear national pride: the DFG promoted their funding of one of this year’s physics laureates, Prof Peter Grünberg, as an example of “Germany’s strengths as a centre of research”:

“The fact that another German researcher has been awarded this Nobel Prize, following Theodor Hänsch, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005, is impressive proof of the high quality of research and science in Germany.”

Perhaps we are just reading too much into the respective national significance of the Nobel prizes. Superb scientific investigations are conducted on every continent. The centers of scientific excellence do indeed shift over time but defining trends in research should be subject to criteria more objective, and perhaps less political, than the countries whose scientists are awarded the Nobel prize.
I, for one, am honored to have research collaborators around the world. My science is strengthened and my life is enriched by these interactions.
And if any of us should win a Nobel prize, I’ll be proud no matter what country they come from.

4 thoughts on “Strong European Showing in Nobels; Is American Science in Danger?

  1. A slight correction to your posting; Dr. Cech was working with the single celled organism, Tetrahymena thermophilus. Dr. Altman worked with E. coli.
    I would contend that a Nobel in the hard sciences is awarded for a high impact body of work. The identity of the person who performed the work is (or, in the ideal world, should be) secondary.

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