The US continues to dominate when it comes to Nobel Prizes, according to a new list of the academics and institutions that have won most of the prestigious accolades so far in the 21st century. American institutions and academics topped the list, put together by the magazine Times Higher Education (THE).
When they were founded in 1901, Nobel Prizes were the first award for academic excellence made on an internationally comparative basis. But Nobel Prizes are no longer accurate indicators of the health of a specific national research system as a whole, particularly when international collaborations and the mobility of academic researchers are at their highest ever level and still growing.
We should expect to see more laureates from emerging economies as the 21st century progresses, but only if governments are willing to support the internationalisation of their research systems.
A global landscape
Winning a Nobel Prize is a hugely prestigious event for an individual academic, and by proxy, for the institutions and countries which have nurtured their research. But many prize-winners have experienced a career of international research and collaboration. Take as one example Shuji Nakamura, a Japanese physicist based at the University of California who shared the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics with two physicists based in Japan for their work developing energy-saving light sources.
In any case, the internationalisation of universities and the growth of collaborative research that we have seen in the 21st century have not benefitted the world in an equitable way. With the dominance of US universities and American academics, the THE’s list of Nobel prizes indicates this very clearly, although I doubt that was its intention.
Its list focused on the Nobel prizes in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine and the Bank of Sweden prize for economic sciences, excluding the literature and peace prizes which are allocated according to quite different criteria.
After the Americans, the rest of the list comprises universities, research institutions and academics found in the highly developed world. These include Germany (notably the Max Planck Society), Israel (notably the Technion Israel Institute of Technology) and, although not in the top ten for universities or research institutions that have won Nobel Prizes, countries such as Japan, Australia, France, and the UK.
It is these developed world countries that have the economic resources and political strengths to create and sustain higher education and research institutions of the very best quality which are able to recruit and to retain highly qualified academics.
This raises familiar questions about the internationalisation of research, such as whether the recruitment and concentration of talented academics and researchers in a relatively few institutions and countries damages the others through a “brain drain” which sucks away the educated talent needed for development; or whether there is a common “brain gain” achieved through regular exchange, partnership and collaboration in teaching and in research. These are complex questions that can only be assessed over time and which cannot be managed, or at least not easily, through policy interventions.
Ready to collaborate
The so-called BRICS countries of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa may be able to build competitive higher education and research systems to compete over the next few decades for Nobel prizes if they can maintain political stability and sustain economic development. They will need to build partnerships and collaborations in both teaching and research with highly developed countries and their advanced higher education and research systems, including with private and commercial investors.
China and Russia in particular have declared the creation of world-class universities as national policy objectives. They have the economic and intellectual history, and the educational potential and political will to achieve this. Winning Nobel prizes would be the crowning successes of these longer term policies.
However, there are serious questions about the willingness of political rulers in both countries to allow the academic freedom which is vital to the healthy and internationally collaborative intellectual life likely to lead to a Nobel prize.
In those countries in Africa, Asia, Central and South America where the economic, political and social infrastructure is not as well developed, the prospects of building and sustaining high-quality higher education systems, let alone winning Nobel Prizes, will be almost entirely dependent on international cooperation, exchange, and support.
The award of a Nobel Prize is an honour to the individual laureate, to the mother institution, and to the individual country. However, its greatest merit should be the public recognition of the contribution of outstanding intellectual and scientific endeavour to general human development, wherever that takes place in the world.