We’ve got a question going around: it’s been a good year for Europe in the Nobel Prizes, so what does it mean for American science? Are we slipping? Is there a European bias?
I’m going to go way out here on a limb and say the obvious: it means nothing at all. Winning a Nobel does have a political element to it, of course, but the people who win these things usually have a track record of decades of work, and the Nobel is just the most prominent tip of the iceberg of the scientific enterprise. It’s hard to judge trends in the foundations of research from the year-to-year vagaries of what’s going on at the pinnacle.
Also, this is no surprise. Europe is a big place with its own huge investment in research, and a longer history of success in basic science as a whole than the US. There is absolutely nothing to be shocked about when Europeans dominate the Nobel Prize in one year, or several; these are our colleagues, and we are all working together in science. In my own discipline of developmental biology, the powerhouses of the field, from Roux to Spemann to Nüsslein-Volhard, have strong contingents of European researchers, and I am entirely unconcerned about the mere nationality of the winners.
As Abel mentions, Nobel-winning research is usually going to have a lead time of decades. The people who are going to win the prize in 20-30 years are young researchers building up labs right now; the ones who are going to win in 40-50 years are working their way through the public schools and colleges. If you want to know where the signatures of good health in a country’s scientific institutions lie, that’s where you’ve got to look today, not in who’s winning now. The current crop of Nobelists tell us more about the status of science in the 70s and 80s.
That’s what I worry about. I see good researchers struggling to get basic support for their work. I see the high schools churning out students who don’t know simple trigonometry, and who think evolution is just a guess. Don’t look to a few big prizes to sense how science is going in America, look to the ranks of college freshmen. And there I see cause to be concerned: there are just as many bright students as there have ever been, but many of them are handicapped by substandard educations, or by the recent peculiar biases in our educational system that emphasize rote mastery of predetermined facts rather than depth of understanding.
I’m not optimistic. The Nobels have nothing at all to do with it, though.
Although there is one thing to be optimistic about: if science falters in the US, we can hope it continues in Europe and Asia and Australia and Canada. Science is not some parochial custom with an American flavor, after all.