What does it take to be a consistent winner?

December 7, 2001

For a Nobel, it may not be enough to be clever. Harriet Swain looks at patterns in the prize.

What does it take to win a Nobel prize? First, it helps to be American. The United States took at least a share of the prizes in all the science fields this year, as it did last year. In 1976, every laureate in every field but peace was American. Between 1901 and 2000, more than 35 per cent of the winners in chemistry, 41 per cent in physics and 47 per cent in medicine were from the US, which has won more than 65 per cent of economics prizes since their introduction in 1969.

If not an American, at least try to be European. The number of winners from outside these two regions is negligible, although this could be changing as Japan has received two chemistry prizes in two years and has a national plan to win more.

For a Nobel, one of the best sorts of European to be is British - 18 per cent of winners in chemistry, 12 per cent in physics and 13 per cent in medicine have come from the United Kingdom. Britain has also done well in economics, with 13 per cent of prizes.

Perhaps the best option is to be Scandinavian - particularly Swedish. Sweden has done disproportionately well in physics and chemistry. It equals France's share of prizes in medicine, and has done well in economics. Scandinavia has secured 14 literature prizes, compared with 11 for France, eight for the US, seven for Germany and seven for Britain and Northern Ireland.

This cannot be unconnected with the fact that Swedish institutions play a big role in the selection process. Elisabeth Crawford, a visiting scholar at the Centre for the History of Science at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, has studied archives related to the first 50 years of awards in physics and chemistry (Nobel archives are made available to science historians after 50 years). She concedes that Swedish scientists have punched above their weight, but adds that this now seems to have changed. Anyway, the prize's early history suggests that every country was pushing its own agenda.

Alfred Nobel's will stated: "No consideration whatsoever shall be given to the nationality of the candidate." But Crawford's research shows that in the prize's first 50 years, three-quarters of those nominated and a third of nominators came from just four countries: Germany, the US, France and Britain. Some 60 per cent of French nominations were French, while for Germany, the US and Britain, respectively 53 per cent, 49 per cent and 35 per cent of nominations were for their compatriots.

Germany performed exceptionally well at the beginning of the century, but it never recovered from Hitler's ban on Germans receiving a Nobel after the 1936 peace prize was awarded to the leftwing anti-fascist Carl von Ossietzky. This ban lasted only until 1945, but it allowed Britain and then the US to become the countries to which the Nobel committees felt most affiliated.

Crawford suggests that one reason some countries and institutions regularly outperform others is that all Nobel laureates are invited to be nominators and that their opinions are likely to carry much weight. But the way prizes are awarded is only a small part of why some countries do better than others.

Andrew Warwick, a senior lecturer in the history of science at Imperial College, London, says that the kind of high-level research that leads to a Nobel tends to demand established support and training networks and resources that few countries can supply. These countries attract the best from all over the world. Regular access to other people at the cutting edge is vital. "The idea is that if you really are that clever you only need a whiff of something and you are away," he says. "The evidence suggests that that is completely false." All the brightest researchers from the developing world tend to gravitate to the first, and the more promising they are, the more likely they are to be offered incentives to stay.

It is not just countries that are eager to claim laureates for their own. Institutions are too, however tenuous the link. Nevertheless, some institutions appear much more regularly than others in the Nobel's archives.

To win a Nobel, it helps to go to the right institution. In the US, you have a choice of the University of California, the California Institute of Technology, the Rockefeller Institute, Harvard University or the University of Chicago. In the UK, the best option is Cambridge University.

Of the 24 UK Nobel winners in chemistry, nine have been from Cambridge, more than twice as many as its nearest rival, Oxford University, which has four. Three of the five UK economics winners were from Cambridge, which also spawned seven of the 20 UK winners in physics. Only in medicine has Oxford come out ahead, with four winners to Cambridge's two, although London University institutions and research laboratories dominate the field.

The reason why Cambridge has done so well, suggests Brian Heap, vice-president of the Royal Society and master of St Edmunds College, Cambridge, is its long history of strengths in science and technology. In addition, he says: "Perhaps the system does tend to breed people with a certain twist of originality and independence."

But Warwick says the factors that apply to countries hold for institutions, too. Those at the cutting edge develop highly productive networks and attract the brightest people, which they then keep with the incentive of access to other bright people working in the field. The system becomes self-perpetuating.

Peter Cotgreave, director of Save British Science, says a crucial ingredient for winning a prize is the ability to carry on doing something that at times may be unprofitable and obscure. Only institutions with adequate financial support - particularly independent financial backing - are able to do this.

An institution's reputation may also play a part, he suggests. "A committee would be unlikely to give a prize to someone at the 'university of the middle of nowhere' unless it was the biggest discovery of the century because they would not be connected to the people involved and making the decisions. There is a sense in which it is felt, if they are at Cambridge, they must be good."

But even if you are British and at Cambridge, you have to pick your moment. While Britain's success in the three science awards rose steadily from the 1940s to a peak of 13 in the 1970s, it has fallen since then, with just two in the 1990s. Cotgreave blames poor funding. But there have been periods when a particularly innovative team of scientists or the presence of competition seems to have sparked ideas.

Timing and the right subject are paramount. Now is a good time to be studying life sciences, although for most of the Nobel century, physics was where the action was.

There is just one extra asset you are likely to need in going for that gold medal: you will have to be exceptionally clever.

Additional research by Corinne Spivack.

100 years of the Nobel contents page

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