US: Only three science Nobels were actually American

"USA! USA! We're number one!" From press reports last week, you would assume that eight of the nine science Nobel Prizes were swept by United States scientists. In truth all but three received their early school education elsewhere.

The 2009 Nobel in physics went to three scientists. Charles K Kao was born in Shanghai and was awarded his doctorate at the University of London. Willard S Boyle was born in Nova Scotia and educated in Canada. Only one, George E Smith, was born and educated in the US.
The 2009 Nobel in chemistry went to three researchers. While Venkatraman Ramakrishnan is a US national, he was born and educated through to his bachelor degree in India and today works at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the UK. Ada E Yonath was born and educated through to graduate school in Israel (and is the only one of the nine recognised by the press to not be American). Again, only one, Thomas A Steitz, was born and educated in the US.
The 2009 Nobel in physiology or medicine went to three researchers. While Elizabeth H Blackburn is currently a US resident, she was born and educated in Australia. Although he resides in the US, Jack W Szostak, was born in London and is a Canadian. Only one of the three, Carol W Greider, is an American educated in American public schools.
So, only three out of the nine science Nobel Laureates are products of the American K-12 educational system. And those three Americans were all educated in the US before the "Nation at Risk" report threw the US into a frenzy of educational reform that culminated in teach-to-the-test memorisation.

They were all educated by our earlier education system that allowed science teachers to decide what to teach, how to teach, and when to teach - with ample opportunity for creative course and lab work. That is hard to find today because of the oppressive standardisation movement.

There is a lag between when research is accomplished and when time shows it is critical enough to be of Nobel Prize stature. But the last years of awards have provided plenty of evidence that US dominance of the science prizes is coming to an end.
The fact that most of these researchers came to America for research opportunities shows that America "bought" many prize-winners with its state-of-the-art research facilities. But while the US university system is still considered the best in the world, more and more young international talent is now going elsewhere.

For example, one-third of the new US patents are by foreign-born scientists while recent international rankings of universities show a decline in American institutions and a rise of those in Asia.
Defenders of the current US system declare that other countries only educate a small elite while we educate all children. That is no longer correct: in my last trips to Beijing, Nanjing, and Shanghai, their schools were graduating more than 70% of their students into college, and nearly all those students finish college in four years, a much higher rate than in the US.
Other countries have always envied our ability to teach students to be creative because they had a standard national curriculum that forced teachers to teach-to-the-test. They admit: "We are not impressed with our students' ability to rank number one on international tests. We teach our students to take tests [but] we don't get Nobel Prizes."

Korea and Singapore and China are attempting to get off national standardisation to provide their teachers with the autonomy to vary their teaching. Meanwhile, the US is only months away from moving to national standards, locking us into teaching-to-the-test and shutting down our remaining creative science teachers.
US scientists won three, not eight of the nine science Nobel Prizes. Americans should celebrate while they have them; they may not see many more.

* Professor John Richard Schrock is a Kansas-based entomologist and biology teacher trainer.