The 2021 Nobels: Lessons for HE, science and society

The Nobel Prizes in the sciences (physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, and economics) were recently awarded for 2021 – and as usual they not only recognise top scientists and their discoveries, but they also have lessons for contemporary universities and science.

It is worth reflecting on some general trends in this year’s Nobels. It is, of course, necessary to understand that Nobel awards, with few exceptions, recognise impressive scientific achievements of recent decades and “reward the discoveries that have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind” – but academe, perhaps especially at the top levels of research universities, changes slowly.

Who and where?

We can briefly summarise who received this year’s prizes and where they are located. All of the 10 winners this year were male (in 2020, three out of 10 were women), as is, unfortunately, the norm for these awards – only 25 women have previously been awarded Nobel Prizes in the sciences.

This year's winners are currently affiliated with universities in only three countries – seven in the United States, two in Germany and one in Italy. Three are located at research institutes (two at Germany’s Max Planck Institutes and one at the US Howard Hughes Medical Institute) and seven at universities. As is typical, the affiliated universities are top-ranked, highly-funded and well-recognised research universities, for instance, Stanford University and Princeton University.

The origin, education and careers of 2021 Nobelists

Interestingly, only two of this year’s Nobel laureates were born in the United States (others were born in Japan, Germany, Italy, the UK, Lebanon, Canada and the Netherlands), although six out of 10 work in the US at present.

Six out of 10 earned their PhDs from US universities, with two from Germany and one each from Japan and Italy. Their undergraduate origins, on the other hand, reflect the diversity of the laureates’ countries of birth – only two out of 10 earned their bachelors degrees from US institutions. The others studied in Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, Scotland, Japan, Italy and Lebanon – all at top universities and colleges.

The career patterns of Nobel laureates are also significant. For the 2021 cohort, only four have remained within a single country (the United States), sometimes with several career moves between top universities, while the other six have worked in different countries – ranging from visiting professorships to full-time positions.

These experiences often include the laureates’ own countries of birth, but also other national contexts that boast top institutions, such as Germany and the UK.

Science is international, but limited and stratified

The education and careers of this year’s Nobel laureates show that top scientists are indeed internationally mobile. Some have held appointments in several countries – all at top institutions – and they tend to gravitate to the countries with the most advanced scientific institutions, especially the United States.

The careers of this year’s Nobelists are international, but within an elite circle, indicating the extent of global science and the importance of cross-fertilisation of ideas. The educational and career journeys of this year’s Nobel laureates (as may also be seen in other recent cohorts), especially in terms of graduate student mobility, scholar exchange and some instances of joint international collaborative work, may signal a shift in the make-up of the elite scholars of the academic world to include more characteristics of research internationalisation.

The 2021 Nobel laureates, in keeping with previous years, are largely confined in terms of their currently affiliated universities to a few countries, with no representation this year from anywhere except Europe and the United States.

It is worth noting that, in some cases, the research which led to the Nobel prize took place at an institution or country separate from the laureates’ current affiliation or location.

There is little sign yet of the ‘rise of Asia’, despite the massive research investments made especially by China and the existence of highly-ranked universities in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore.

It is the case that the Nobels are a somewhat ‘lagging indicator’ of scientific achievement, but one might expect that the near monopoly of North America and Western Europe might have been somewhat weakened by now.

What do the 2021 Nobels teach us about universities and science?

It is clear that the United States dominates the Nobel prizes in the sciences. In 2021, scientists working in US universities snared seven out of 10 prizes. Of course, not all of the winners were born or educated at the undergraduate level in the US. For this year, only two were US-born and undergraduate-educated – although six received their doctorates from American universities. This is not unusual and shows the attraction of American research universities.

The Nobels show that basic science is both concentrated and stratified. For the past two decades, 103 out of a total of 230 Nobels in the four scientific fields were won by scientists born in the United States. An additional 38 were born in other English-speaking countries.

This was not always the case. Prior to World War II, German-speaking countries ranked high – but the Nazi regime destroyed German scientific domination. Indeed, until 1948, Germany often led in terms of the number of prizes by citizenship, at which point the UK led for a number of years until the US overtook the count in 1960, due in part to the immigration of Jewish and other scientists fleeing Nazi oppression.

Might the US and other Anglophone countries lose their dominant positions in the coming years? Despite the much heralded ‘rise of China’ and some evidence of the geographic spread of basic research, it is unlikely that the balance will alter fundamentally in the foreseeable future.

The ecosystem of the top American universities is stable – good infrastructure, a culture of research excellence, high (by global academic standards) salaries, competitively available research funding, academic freedom and reasonable autonomy and, of great importance, the ability and willingness to attract and retain top global talent.

Some change is possible, perhaps likely, and highly desirable. Expanding path-breaking basic research globally would diversify themes and people. And the wave of academic excellence initiatives that are taking place in 15 countries, including China, Russia, Germany, France, and others may, in the medium-term, strengthen the best research universities.

The use of English as the global scientific language levels the playing field a bit by giving the global scientific community a common language, while at the same time undeniably giving an advantage to those countries using English as their native medium.

The importance of fundamental research

Nobel Prize-level research clearly operates in a rarified stratosphere of global science. And in today’s ‘results-oriented’ academic atmosphere, the kind of long-term thinking and orientation toward basic research is considered to be an unaffordable luxury by most governments and universities.

Yet, as the Nobel Prize committees recognise each year, it is precisely such fundamental research that yields the most brilliant practical results in the long run – such as the work by David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian on the discovery of receptors for temperature and touch, which Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health, suggests may support the development of pain treatment.

It is worth considering then whether, in our efforts to support research internationalisation through funding, mobility and collaboration schemes, we should also re-evaluate our approach to supporting basic research at a global scale.

Philip G Altbach is research professor and distinguished fellow and Tessa DeLaquil is PhD student and a research assistant at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States.