Brits tipped for Nobel glory

Analysis by Thomson Reuters puts physicists in line for accolade, writes Zoë Corbyn

September 24, 2009

Two British physicists are being tipped to win Nobel prizes in an annual analysis of the contenders for the prestigious accolade.

Sir John Pendry, professor of theoretical solid-state physics at Imperial College London, and Sir Michael Berry, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Bristol, are among 25 names to make the list compiled by Thomson Reuters, the academic data provider.

Covering medicine, chemistry, physics and economics, the predictions use citations - the number of times an academic's work is cited by his or her peers - to suggest potential winners.

Thomson Reuters' success rate thus far stands at about 15 per cent, with seven of its 45 predictions made between 2002 and 2008 proving to be accurate.

The contenders announced this week are newly selected for 2009, although individuals put forward in previous years are still considered. Sir John is tipped for a joint prize along with two US scientists for the prediction and discovery of negative refraction, where light rays behave in an unexpected way. The discovery is spurring the development of cloaking devices.

Sir Michael appears alongside Yakir Aharonov, an Israeli physicist now based in the US, for their discovery of the Aharonov-Bohm effect and the related Berry phase, which has important implications for quantum mechanics.

While the pair are the only Britons included in the forecast, other contenders from these shores will no doubt join them on shortlists.

Earlier this month, John Gurdon, emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge, jointly won the US' Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, along with Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka, for their discoveries in nuclear cell reprogramming, which have led to the creation of stem cells from adult cells.

Considered the most prestigious medical awards in the US, the Laskers are often known as the "American Nobels": indeed, many past recipients have gone on to win Nobel prizes.

David Pendlebury, author of the Thomson Reuters analysis, said Professor Gurdon's work was "an important discovery", but had not been included in his predictions because it is so new.

"Usually, the Nobel prizes simmer a little longer," he said.

The 2009 Nobel winners will be announced early next month.


Is UK science getting stronger, or does the dearth of British Nobel prizewinners in recent years spell trouble?

This issue was broached in February by 20 eminent British scientists, who wrote to Times Higher Education blaming 30 years of research policies for "almost a tenfold decrease" in the rate at which UK researchers are winning Nobel prizes.

But a study of the UK's Nobel record in science, published this summer, says the country's performance is "remarkably strong and stable", so it would be a mistake to label it a "crisis".

As Times Higher Education reported, the paper, "An Assessment of British Science over the 20th Century", by Bruce Weinberg, associate professor of economics at Ohio State University, says Britain has enjoyed a "remarkable level of stability" in terms of Nobel laureates.

It says that this is a good indicator of the overall strength of a country's scientific performance, as Nobel laureates are "pioneers" in their fields.

The analysis ranks the UK as the second-strongest scientific country in the world after the US, and ahead of Germany and Japan.

Despite this upbeat assessment, Nick Dusic, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said other analyses suggest that Britain's Nobel laureates often migrate to the US after winning, and said British science was changing from "revolutionary to normal".

He added: "When other countries, especially the US, are increasing their investment in scientific research, the UK can't afford to stand still."

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