What US Nobel Prize wins suggest for Australia’s future

For decades the US has dominated scientific research and discovery as a significant proxy measure of success – Nobel Prizes – indicates. But the situation is changing partly because other nations are catching up and partly because of changing political attitudes to science.

According to various polls barely 50% of Americans are supportive of scientific endeavours – and the doubters include many elected officials such as the many Republican climate denialists.

A recent particularly unhinged, but typical, example of this were the comments (22/9) by Kristina Karamo, Chair of the Michigan Republican Party, who said: “We need to be good stewards of our planet. But that doesn’t mean I need to do away with my gas vehicle and drive an electric vehicle with a battery from China.” She warned Democrats are trying to “convince us that if we don’t centralise power in the government, the planet is gonna die. That seems like one of the biggest scams [since] Darwinian evolution.”

In contrast the US National Academy of Sciences President, Marcia McNutt, contributed a PNAS Editorial (21/12) saying: “There are some competitions decidedly worth winning. One of the noblest is the competition to be the nation with the highest quality sciences and innovation, given the critical role of R&D to public health, quality of life, national security and economic competitiveness.

“America has for many decades prided itself s on the pre-eminence of its scientific enterprise. However, confidence that American science will continue to lead the world and even certainty that it current does is waning,” she said.

For instance, China has surpassed the US in measures such as innovation papers in top journals and science funding and McNutt shares the concerns of many that the US is entering a period of decline.

To establish whether this is true she first looks at Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans and points out that since 1901 the US has gained 368 prizes (excluding Peace and Literature) three times the second highest tally which was for the UK.  Before World War II Germany led the world in Nobel Science prizes followed by the UK. But now the US clearly outranks all other countries.

It is interesting that her decision to exclude Peace and Literature Prizes reminds us of Henry Kissinger – who won 1973 Nobel Peace Prize – perhaps the most inappropriate in Nobel history.

But why the post-1945 record? McNutt first looks at the impact of the introduction of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences which could have a significant impact on the total US tally. While there are significantly more US winners of this prize from other countries, she establishes that the higher US overall trend started well before the 1969 introduction of the Economics prize.

Looking at other possible factors she points to the publication of Vannevar Bush’s Science the Endless Frontier followed by the founding of the NSF to fund basic research.

But a third hypothesis was the connection between Nobel Prizes and immigration. She tested the percentage of medals earned by citizens of the top 10 nations in terms of total Nobel prizes in the sciences as a percentage of those who immigrated to that nation after birth.

With this the US ranks first in both total medals and in terms of the fraction of medals awarded to first generation immigrants – ranging from a high of 33% for Physics to a low of 21% for Economics.

McNutt puts in the usual caution that correlation doesn’t mean causation but suggests there has been a virtuous circle that leads to the Nobel success.

The first step is funding for basic research which attracted the best and brightest young scholars from all over the world; and then created entirely new industries that spurred growth in the US economy; and then fostered more public and private funding which then produced more outputs and attracted yet more researchers.

How is Australia doing in terms of creating such a virtuous circle? Not so well over recent decades with climate denialists and fundamentalist Christians as Prime Ministers; Ministers interfering with research grants; bureaucratised universities; low levels by international standards of investment in basic science;  and, an unwelcoming environment for many immigrants let alone scientists.

We have also not done that well in terms of Nobel Prizes. We’ve won 13 (14 if you count Patrick White) and one of those, John Cornforth, won his after leaving Australia for Oxford.

Overall, we are equal 14th among nations in the Nobel tally: equal with Norway and Denmark and behind countries such as Hungary, Poland, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands and a long way behind the US, UK, Germany, France, Sweden and Switzerland.

McNutt’s plea to the US is apposite for Australia. “Having sufficient resources for basic research is essential to support the very best applicants for graduate research assistantships, regardless of nation of origin. But, in addition we must work to keep these talented young scholars here, working in our own R&D enterprises.”

The blog’s friend John Spitzer alerted the blog to the Marcia Mc Nutt PNAS article.