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Should British universities worry about a lack of Nobel Prizes in the 21st century?

Should British universities worry about a lack of Nobel Prizes in the 21st century?

Going for gold. AlphaTangoBravo/Adam Baker, CC BY-NC

The top ten list of institutions around the world which have won the most Nobel Prizes this century does not contain a single British university. US institutions dominated the list, compiled by Times Higher Education, which was topped by Stanford, followed by Columbia and the University of California, Berkeley. But the UK was second place behind the US in terms of nationalities who have won the prize, with 12 British winners in the past 15 years. There have been 71 American laureates.

The list, which excludes literature and peace prizes, is based on a ratio that weights universities and countries on the number of prize winners for each category and the number of institutions affiliated with each award. We asked two academics to discuss the relevance of the results for the UK.

*James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy, University of Sussex *

All you can do is make sure your research system overall is well-funded, and properly organised, and that people have freedom and incentives to pursue interesting questions. Nobel prizes are an unpredictable by-product, not a reliable indicator, of a healthy research system.

So I’m not unduly worried by the fact that there are no UK universities among the top 10 Nobel-winning institutions of the past 15 years – in large part, that’s just a reflection of US economic strength and an increasingly globalised research system, in which many countries, universities and centres are now serious players. And that’s a positive thing: more world-class research being done elsewhere doesn’t mean less is being done in the UK – that’s not how science works.

At the same time, it is right to reflect on the long-term trends here, and to consider seriously the effects that another five years of flat cash research funding (or worse) will have on the quality, diversity and productivity of the UK system, and on the attractiveness of academic research as a career for some of our brightest young people. In particular, the amount of funding that’s available in responsive mode – to explore questions that researchers themselves generate – is under growing pressure.

In some of the research councils, proposal success rates for this kind of responsive research have fallen recently to below 10%. That’s disastrous – it puts people off applying and may well drive them out of the system altogether. So a lot hinges on this November’s spending review. Chancellor George Osborne talks a good game when it comes to science and research, but will he seriously invest to prevent what will otherwise be a slow and inglorious slide down this and many other international rankings?

Tom McLeish, professor of physics, Durham University

Should we be concerned that the UK does not have a university in the top ten for Nobel Prizes in the 21st century? We deliberately invest in a broad community of research-intensive universities, between which academic mobility is relatively high, research funding strong (on an international scale), research-led teaching highly valued and research collaboration encouraged. So such a statistic, based on the work of a few academics, ought not to weigh heavily with most us.

If we esteem Nobels at all, our national strategy suggests that we look at the numbers captured by the UK as a whole. There the news does not look so bad – we end up second only to the US. But this is not to diminish the astonishing achievement of Stanford, which has had seven Nobel laureates since 2000.

However, the UK’s “Nobel ratio” to the US, as calculated by THE, is unexpected, given stronger showings for the UK in other more quantitative measures, such as its share of highly cited papers. So it might be that there is something missing from the UK academic mix.

The late British scientist Robert Edwards was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2010 for his development of in vitro fertilization. Chris Radburn / PA Archive

I am not convinced that the answer is to be found in the overall level of funding, although the current erosion of national science funding will shut off future innovation. In any case it is statistically difficult to relate historical research budgets to future Nobel Prizes. This is particularly pertinent give the well-documented delay between research being published and academics being rewarded with a Nobel.

My hunch is that another resource is far more significant: the quantity and quality of time. Non-incremental ideas are not conceived in a schedule of shredded moments of concentration, but through sustained thought, reading, experiment, calculation and discussion.

Our institutions of learning have been poor at preserving such uninterrupted time for research. Quantity of time is not sufficient on its own however; the quality of experience, and whether it is disruptive or not, also lies at the well-spring of innovative thinking. Recent educational research has pointed to the mutual benefits of different modes of thinking – music seeps into maths, language into logic. If the same is true of the most groundbreaking research, then we also suffer from over-narrow disciplinary horizons.

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