What the Nobels tell us about science and higher education

The 2022 Nobel Prizes in the sciences (physics, chemistry, physiology/medicine and economics), recently awarded, recognise the best in basic research – the kind of research that may seem highly theoretical or esoteric when it is done, often much earlier in the winner’s career, but in most cases has important practical impact over time or leads to major rethinking of science and society as we understand it.

For example, Svante Pääbo, the winner in physiology/medicine, was recognised for sequencing the genome of the Neanderthal, which led to new insights into human evolution and resulted in the establishment of a new discipline – paleogenomics. Understanding the genetics of Neanderthals as the close relatives of Homo sapiens helps us to better understand human physiology today.

John F Clauser, in the physics category, conducted experiments in quantum physics to show how two particles are ‘entangled’ and seem to act as if they were a single unit. In an interview, Clauser made clear that doing this kind of research was not easy – trying to ‘topple’ quantum mechanics – and that his colleagues warned him that he would ruin his career and that it was a waste of time.

Basic research has been much criticised in recent years for being impractical, expensive or ‘blue sky’ thinking. Funders and policy-makers want quick, ‘relevant’ and innovative results – and are increasingly reluctant to pay for more theoretical research.

Top research universities, although perhaps too much focused on the bottom line, provide the academic freedom, space and time necessary for talented researchers to pursue their ideas, even if sometimes these concepts seem far from applicable in the short term.

The Nobel Prizes, while certainly elite, do offer us a good opportunity to reflect on the distinct nature and value of academic research – much Nobel-related research stems from original ideas that take shape in labs, faculty offices and classrooms at universities worldwide.

Science is international

Another key aspect of this year’s Nobels is the international nature of scientific research in the 21st century, although perhaps with fewer countries of origin represented compared to last year’s cohort (see the 2021 Nobelists, in International Higher Education #109).

Professors, post-docs and students gravitate to the largely welcoming and internationalised academic culture of top universities – especially in academic systems and countries that have a welcoming and open academic environment.

Anton Zeilinger, a joint prize-winner in the physics category, was born in Austria, studied at the University of Vienna for both his bachelor and PhD degrees, and has been internationally mobile throughout his career – with visiting faculty and research positions in China, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Douglas W Diamond, a joint prize-winner in the economics category, was born in the US and studied at Brown University and Yale, has held visiting faculty and research positions in Hong Kong, Japan and Germany and was a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Pääbo completed his PhD in Sweden and has held post-doc positions in Switzerland and the US and has current faculty affiliations in both Germany and Japan.

The international movements of these Nobel Prize-winners point to the role that internationalisation of the academic career, in terms of student and scholar mobility, but also via cross-national relationships and collaboration, may play in the development of Nobel-quality research.

What do the Nobels tell us about science and higher education? The US and, to a much lesser extent, France, Germany and the UK dominate the Nobels.

Nobel Prizes, and Nobel Prize-winning universities, seem to take time to mature. Relatively few winners are in the early phases of their careers, with an average age of 70 across the 10 science winners, ranging between the mid-50s to the early 80s.

This suggests again that the provision of space and time within the university environment for basic research is worth pursuit and commitment by those within academia and beyond.

A vibrant academic culture

Why does the US dominate? We suggest that such achievements may result from a combination of academic freedom, a tradition of basic research, well-established research universities, high academic salaries (relative to most other countries), a welcoming academic system for international scholars, a combination of a competitive merit-based academic culture as well as cooperation in science and relatively accessible competition-based grant and contract funding.

Academic culture and governance is central to building a rich environment for Nobel-level science. The US, over time, has developed in its research university sector a pattern of organisation and culture friendly to fundamental research.

The ability to create (and dismantle) research centres, respect for interdisciplinary work, academic freedom and the ability to ask sometimes controversial questions, a spirit of both cooperation (and competition) in research, the ability to recruit doctoral students and post-docs globally and significant autonomy of academic units and individual professors contribute to a vibrant culture.

Of course, not all these characteristics may be favourable, and not all universities have these characteristics.

Over the years, a significant number of Nobelists from many countries have won their awards while working in the US – four of the 2021 Nobel cohort were born outside of the US but were affiliated with US institutions at the time of winning.

However, as is noticeable in the modest decline of the United States in the global academic rankings, a combination of long-term disinvestment in public higher education and the growing anti-intellectualism in segments of US society may well contribute to a decline in American Nobel domination in coming years. Yet, the great strength over time of the research university sector will likely mean continued high performance.

While much has been said about the rise of Chinese universities, only one Nobel has been awarded to a Chinese scholar working in China (and to a woman) – Tu Youyou won the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine in 2015 for her work on discovering in traditional Chinese medicine a novel malaria therapy.

There is, as yet, no sign that Chinese science, despite massive investment, is yielding Nobel-class fundamental research.

On the one hand, this suggests that the maturation of research and the research environment over time (decades) plays a part in outcomes as qualified by the winning of Nobel Prizes. On the other hand, it may offer insight into a possible future for many nations – that in spite of significant financial commitments, national policies that focus on innovation and related economic outcomes of academic research (which many are leaning towards) may further stifle the potential for truly creative research.

Few signs of diversity

As reflected in both this year’s and the previous year’s cohorts (one woman in 2022, no women in 2021), the number of women Nobelists in the sciences remains very small.

Furthermore, and unsurprisingly, Nobelists are located at a small number of top-ranked universities and research institutes worldwide, and especially in the US.

Most prize-winners have themselves had an elite higher education in the world’s top universities and spent their careers in prestigious and well-funded universities and research institutes, almost exclusively in the Global North. There have been few signs of diversity in any way of Nobelists or of the academic cultures from which they come.

The Nobel Prizes tell us much about global science and its continuing inequalities and elitism. At the same time, they highlight the importance of fundamental research, creativity and the central role of universities in creating and sustaining the most effective academic cultures for enabling researchers to pursue knowledge for the sake of knowledge and shaping the way we see the world.

Philip G Altbach is research professor and distinguished fellow, Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA, where Tessa DeLaquil is research assistant and a doctoral candidate.