Money matters in doing science that matters

October 24, 2003

Britain's Nobel wins mask its fall as a scientific power - and only more cash can reverse that, says Peter Lampl

It's been a great year for Britons as far as Nobel prizes are concerned. This is the first year we have won a share of three of the four Nobel prizes for chemistry, physics, physiology or medicine and economics since 1973. But this success masks a long-term decline. Only one laureate works in Britain, while the others have worked in America for the past 20 years or more.

When I went up to Oxford University in the late 1960s to read chemistry, the department had a sprinkling of Nobel prizewinners. It has none now.

The Sutton Trust has just completed an analysis of Nobel prizes from 1900 through to 2002. As the table shows, before the war Germany secured the greatest number of prizes, winning about 30 per cent, with Britain second at about 20 per cent. Since the war, the US has become dominant, with more than 50 per cent and this has increased to almost 75 per cent since 1990.

The UK share held at about 20 per cent until 1980 and then dropped below 10 per cent. Germany and other European countries have seen a similar decline.

Since 1990, British citizens have won 13 Nobel prizes, but six were based at American universities.

Clearly, Nobel prizes do not give us the whole picture. Although they are the best known, most prestigious and richest prizes, they do not cover maths or other sciences such as ecology, evolution and space science.

Including all major prizes in the analysis does not alter the conclusion: the US share is more than half, and the UK is second at about 10 per cent.

Another measure of a country's contribution to science is citations in scientific papers and, again, the US accounts for half of the world's citations, with the UK second with 9 per cent.

It is clear from all these indicators that the US holds an increasingly dominant position in scientific research, while all other countries' relative positions have declined.

The reason is not hard to find. The US spends 2.7 per cent of its gross domestic product on higher education, compared with an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average of 1.3 per cent and a UK spend of 1 per cent.

Twenty years ago, the UK spent £10,000 per student on university tuition at today's prices; now it spends £5,100. In the US, average funding per student for private universities has grown from £6,000 to more than £11,000 in the past two decades, and top private universities charge £16,000 per student while state universities are funded at more than £7,000 per student.

That money matters is demonstrated by the research we published on endowments earlier this year. It showed that the top five ranking of universities in terms of endowment per student - Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - mirrors exactly the university ranking as determined by US News and World Report . While the causal nature of the relationship between finance and quality is complex, the closeness of the fit between the two is striking. Oxford and Cambridge universities are the only British institutions with significant endowments, at about £2 billion each, yet they would rank only 15th on the US university list. All other British universities combined have an endowment of approximately only £2 billion.

Nobel prizes give a time-delayed measure of performance and, given the deterioration in funding at British universities over the past 20 years, it is likely that the situation here is worse than that suggested by the analysis. Clearly British universities are hopelessly underfunded and the white paper proposals are inadequate. But they are the only game in town, which is why it would be a tragedy if, in modified form, the proposals did not get through Parliament.

Sir Peter Lampl is chairman of The Sutton Trust. The full Sutton Trust analysis of Nobel prizes can be found at www.suttontrust.com


Percentage of Nobel prizewinners
By institution nationality

 

US UK Germany Rest of Europe Japan Rest of world No. of prizes

1900-09

3

18

33

45

0

0

33

1910-19

8

13

33

46

0

0

24

1920-29

6

22

25

41

0

6

32

1930-39

26

18

29

24

0

3

38

1940-49

47

20

3

23

3

3

30

1950-59

52

17

13

19

0

0

54

1960-69

48

18

8

20

2

3

60

1970-79

56

19

4

18

0

3

77

1980-89

60

8

6

23

1

1

76

1990-99

77

5

7

8

0

3

75

2000-02

70

9

0

9

12

0

33

No. of prizes

255

77

64

118

7

11

532

Percentage

48%

14%

12%

22%

1%

2%

-

Source: Sutton Trust Analysis of Nobel List of Laurates

 

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