Will the next generation of Americans' weak grasp of science eventually send Nobel Prizes to other nations?

Gunnar Oquist, Permanent Secretary of the Royal Academy of Science, left, and Per Carlson, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, announce the Nobel Prize winners in physics in Stockholm, Tues., Oct. 3, 2006. Americans John C. Mather and George F. Smoot won the physics prize for work that helped shed more light on the beginning of the universe and the origin of galaxies and stars.  Credit: AP Photo/Bertil Ericson

Last week, Uncle Sam stormed Sweden and, to paraphrase a classic piece of viral Internet media, decreed: All your Nobels are belong to us.  For the first time since 1983, all the 2006 Nobel laureates in science are Americans.  The Nobel sweep—in which American researchers claimed the medicine, physics, and chemistry prizes—highlights a striking juxtaposition in American science: While the U.S. towers over its global peers at the highest levels of science, in terms of elementary and secondary education, we’re lagging far behind. With a corroded pipeline of homegrown talent, many of the country’s scientific elite worry that this could be one of the last American Nobel three-peats.

On Monday, Oct. 2, Stanford University’s Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello of the University of Massachusetts won the physiology or medicine prize for their work on RNA interference. They discovered that a strand of double-stranded RNA corresponding to a certain gene can enter a cell and, once there, silence the corresponding gene. The mechanism, called RNA interference, is useful for controlling viruses, which can be disabled by interference, and gene expression: A recent study proved that in animals, a gene known for causing high cholesterol could be silenced via RNA interference. 

Tuesday, Oct. 3, John C. Mather of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and George F. Smoot of the University of California, Berkeley took home the physics prize for their work measuring cosmic background radiation, a relic of the Big Bang. Using a NASA satellite, the pair measured the temperature distribution of the electromagnetic radiation emitted just after the beginnings of the universe. They also detected small variations in temperature in the cosmic background, confirming that galaxies and stars would have been able to form in the infant universe.

Then, on Wednesday, Stanford’s Roger Kornberg, whose father won a physiology or medicine Nobel in 1959, snagged the chemistry award for his detailed description of transcription in eukaryotes, organisms whose cells have nuclei. Kornberg created a crystallographic picture of the process, in which DNA is transcribed into RNA for transport out of the nucleus. This process is disrupted in both cancer and heart disease.

“How fitting that Alfred Nobel made his fortune in dynamite,” Stephen Colbert remarked on “The Colbert Report” Wednesday night, “because America is blowing every other country out of the water!”

The U.S. can claim a total of 232 science Nobelists, out of the 513 recognized since the prizes were first bestowed in 1901. Since 1950, the U.S. has truly dominated the field, racking up 202 science Nobels. 

“Nobel Prizes are not entirely new to America,” said Norman Augustine, the retired CEO of Lockheed Martin, who chaired a 2005 National Academies of Sciences report that helped alert the U.S. government to America’s dwindling competitive edge in the sciences. “But the trends are all in the wrong direction.”

Over the past 10 months or so, a steady stream of distressing numbers and facts has created alarm about the future of American science: A recent study found that out of 39 countries surveyed, American 15-year-olds placed 27th in math literacy. In a measure of science literacy among high school seniors, the U.S. placed 42nd out of 44 countries. According to a 2002 poll by the National Science Foundation (NSF), only half of the American public knows that dinosaurs and humans never coexisted or that atoms are larger than electrons.

Nonetheless, according to Daniel Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, a lack of public science literacy is neither a new phenomenon nor a cause for alarm.

“We basically have a scientifically illiterate public,” he said. The Nobel Prize winners, he said, were members of the country’s scientific elite, and America’s future ability to win Nobels “has nothing to do with the average level of scientific literacy.”

Instead, that prospect is likely more dependent upon the amount of money the U.S. pours yearly into research. In 2004, that was more than $300 billion, according to the NSF, a sum greater than the combined investment by the U.K., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan.

“The U.S. has always been one of the friendliest places for creative science,” said Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists.

The view is buoyed by Associated Press reports in which members of the European scientific community openly envied the luxuries the U.S. affords its researchers. Gunnar Oquist, who oversees the science Nobels, called for European governments to match America’s funding levels and its intense commitment to making new discoveries. 

“The U.S. benefits from a numerous and brilliant scientific community with generally good facilities and substantial federal funding, particularly in the areas in which Nobel prizes are awarded,” said John H. Marburger, presidential science advisor and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Anders Liljas, another Nobel committee member, told the AP that the U.S. also encourages interaction between scientists, a practice that clearly pays off come prize time. Over the past 50 years, Nobels have typically been awarded for collaborations. In fact, in the last 20 years, only 11 laureates have taken home prizes for solo work.

This fact stands in sharp contrast to the way science is done in China, where helpful collaboration is often replaced by fierce competitiveness. Reports out of China, the nation most often cited as a threat to American scientific dominance, indicate that the country does not have an atmosphere conducive to the free exchange of ideas needed to produce prizewinners. 

Nor does it seem to encourage the kind of research that may only yield benefits in the long-term. Instead, a Calvinist, publish-or-perish system dominates, complete with performance reviews every couple of years that can result in reduced pay or even job loss based on their level of output. 

It’s a system that’s familiar to scientists in many other countries. 

“A granting system in which you can survive doing science with nothing publishable for a long period of time is certainly not what we have in Sweden, and probably other countries as well,” Liljas told the AP.

As long as American institutions remain rich in cash and committed to the free exchange of ideas, the U.S. will remain a destination for the best and brightest scientists, no matter where they were reared. And, as a result, the Nobels will continue to roll in.

After all, who cares if our next generation of Nobelists aren’t U.S.-born? Isn’t that what America is supposed to be about?

Originally published October 11, 2006


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