UK second only to US but cannot rest on its laureates

Study says investment is needed to maintain Nobel record in science. Liz Rawlings reports

July 30, 2009

An analysis of where Nobel laureates carried out their prizewinning work has highlighted the UK's position as a centre for scientific excellence.

The study, published in The Economic Journal, tracks the trajectory of British science over the 20th century using data on Nobel laureates in chemistry, medicine and physics.

It places Britain second in the world for scientific performance, surpassed only by the US.

The study, conducted by Bruce Weinberg, professor of economics at Ohio State University, looks at where laureates were born, where they conducted their work and in what country they were living when their prize was awarded.

It also considers information from the Institute for Scientific Information Highly Cited, a database of individuals who have wielded major influence over their field as proven by the number of citations of their work.

According to Professor Weinberg, Nobel laureates are a good measure of the strength of a country's scientific performance because they are "pioneers", and "innovation is the foundation for industrial progress".

The report suggests that there was a shift in global scientific dominance in the 20th century, with Europe being overtaken by the US.

However, while Germany, which is ranked third in Professor Weinberg's analysis, and Japan, ranked fourth, witnessed a decline in the proportion of highly cited scientific research over the 20th century, the UK saw no such drop.

"If we extrapolate based on past trends, roughly 12 per cent of Nobel prizewinning work being done today will be done in the UK," Professor Weinberg said.

"That is considerably higher than any country other than the US. Indeed, more Nobel prizewinning work is done in the UK than either Germany or Japan, two countries with larger populations."

Looking at individual fields, Britain does particularly well in pharmacology, with 17.6 per cent of highly cited researchers; plant and animal science (12.8 per cent); neuroscience (12.4 per cent); and clinical medicine (11 per cent).

Computer science was the worst field in citation terms, with a share of just 3 per cent, the report says.

Since the Second World War, Britain has performed better in chemistry and medicine than in physics.

Because the UK has traditionally been a net importer of laureates, it should remain one of the strongest-performing nations in the scientific realm, Professor Weinberg said.

But he cautioned: "There is a danger of resting on one's laurels. The strength of a country's scientific community rests, in large part, on the willingness of public and private entities to make the kind of investment that sustains an ongoing and highly competitive scientific market at a variety of levels.

"The US invested heavily in universities and science from the mid-19th century through to today and has a highly competitive 'scientific market', with many universities competing for scientists and scientists vying for funding and positions.

"The British system is strong, but investments and competition are important for continued excellence."

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