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The 2023 Nobel prizes – What they mean for higher education

What are the big take-aways from the 2023 Nobels in the sciences? There are several clear lessons with relevance to higher education. While the world has been awaiting the rise of Asia to the heights of global science, there is no sign of this diversification in the 2023 Nobels.

Eight of the nine prize winners are affiliated with Western universities – six in the United States. The ninth is Alexei Ekimov, joint winner of the Chemistry prize, chief scientist at a private company in New York. The prize winners, as in years past, were educated in a variety of Western countries – though it seems to be a bumper year for Eastern Europe, with two educated in Hungary and one educated in the former Soviet Union.

A majority have worked at institutions in a variety of countries over the course of their careers including Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Russia, South Korea, Sweden and the United States. This shows once again that science remains international and internationalised, though skewed towards a typical subset of wealthy, Western countries.

And unusually (though perhaps unsurprisingly), the career of one of this year’s winners, Katalin Karikó, shows the explicit impact of sexism and the challenges of working on non-mainstream ideas in the pursuit of Nobel-worthy research.

Science remains partially international

While the 2023 Nobelists are mostly located in the US, their scientific and academic careers, similar to trends in recent years, have been remarkably international. They were born in five different countries – three in the United States, two in France, two in Hungary, one in Tunisia and one in the former Soviet Union. The group received their bachelor degrees in four different countries, and doctorates in five.

As might be expected, this distinguished cohort has held academic and scientific positions in at least 10 countries and has had quite mobile careers.

France has hosted four of the nine at academic institutions over the course of their educational and professional journeys, and Germany has hosted five of the nine either within academic or corporate positions at universities, research institutes and a biotechnology company. However, the US remains the country with the most present affiliations and features in the career trajectories of eight of the nine winners.

Continuing domination of the West, especially America

All but two of the 2023 Nobelists work in the United States, with one having joint US and Hungarian affiliation (since 2021), although only three were born in the US and four received their doctorates in the US.

The non-Western world appears to be absent from the careers of most of this year’s Nobelists – with no mentions of affiliations, post-docs, visiting professorships or other relationships with institutions elsewhere – with one exception of a guest professorship in South Korea.

The 2023 class has a variety of affiliations and experience in continental Europe, with Germany, Sweden and Hungary featuring in the present affiliations of three, and with many having had experience elsewhere in Europe, with France and Germany being popular destinations. Perhaps unexpectedly, the United Kingdom is entirely absent.

The American domination of the Nobel world is not new although it is particularly pronounced this year. This is not surprising. The US accounts for 28% of the world’s research and development expenditures. China is second at 22%, although unrepresented in this year’s Nobels.

American academic salaries for top research professors at highly ranked institutions may be among the highest in the world, particularly in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – fields. And top US universities can provide both the resources and the autonomy necessary for the best research of this kind.

Whether US science and universities will retain dominance is questionable. The internal pressures on academic life in the US, combined with the impressive development of research capacity elsewhere, may lead to a more equal global scientific community in the future.

But for the moment, the US and the West remain at the top of global science as represented by the capture of Nobels and Nobel winners.

The strange case of Katalin Karikó

Dr Katalin Karikó, joint winner of the physiology-medicine award, has received much comment in the media. Born and educated in Hungary, she has spent most of her career in the United States. But she has also held appointments in three other countries at a variety of institutions, and has most recently been senior vice president at BioNTech, a biotech company in Germany.

The debate stems from her time at the University of Pennsylvania, where she worked from 1989 to 2001, in positions ranging from scientific assistant professor, to senior head of research, to adjunct associate professor.

During that period, she was demoted from a tenure-track position in 1995, refused the possibility of reinstatement to the tenure track and eventually ushered into retirement in 2013.

Meanwhile, her close collaborator and fellow prize winner, Dr Drew Weissman, whom she met in 1997, remains at the University of Pennsylvania as professor of medicine, as well as being co-director of the immunology core of the Penn Center for AIDS Research and director of vaccine research in the infectious diseases division.

Some have pointed out that Karikó was working on risky or unconventional scientific themes, and that the usual funding agencies and senior academics were unable to see the promise in her work until recently, when she and her colleague Weissman have been recipients of multiple prizes. The fact that she received her doctorate from the University of Szeged in Hungary and not a prestigious institution in a major country may not have helped.

Others have pointed to this as a clearcut case of gender discrimination, as her research was unacknowledged by the University of Pennsylvania, although the institution unabashedly claimed her Nobel win on social media.

The fact that her career was significantly different to most Nobel winners suggests that the scientific community should at the very least examine how it evaluates innovative but exploratory scientific ideas and should reserve funding and support for such groundbreaking basic research. And of course gender bias, still prevalent in academe and elsewhere, must be eliminated.

Basic science is not just in traditional academe

All of this year’s winners have spent some time in non-academic settings. Of the three Chemistry prize winners, two have done work at Bell Labs, although they currently hold academic affiliations, while the third, Alexei Ekimov, is at Nanocrystals Technology, all within the US context. Karikó moved to BioNTech in Germany to continue her research, unsupported by academia.

A number of winners have spent time at research institutes, some nationally funded and others independently supported as non-profits: the Max Born and Max Planck Institutes and the Institute of Labor Economics in Germany; the Center for Molecular Fingerprinting, and the Biological Research Centre of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences; the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter in the Netherlands; Vavilov State Optical Institute in the former Soviet Union; the Brookhaven National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; and the National Institutes of Health in the US.

Ingredients for the best science

Nobel prizes are, of course, given for scientific accomplishments often achieved decades ago, although the various award committees stress the contemporary relevance of the work done. Nobel prizes seek to link basic research to applied and practical results – ideas and innovations that may take decades to percolate to fruition. But they remind us that basic research is fundamental to science and both to understanding and to practical results.

Furthermore, the Nobels show that the institutional environment is of fundamental importance. Funding, awarded on a meritocratic (and hopefully imaginative) basis is central. Though the case of Karikó points to the realities of discrimination within the institutionalised research system – as the Nobel-winning research of Claudia Goldin underscores – and the alternative pathways that unsupported scientists seek to pursue research of this calibre.

Universities or other scientific institutions that respect academic freedom, encourage independent work and colleagueship, have adequate funding and have autonomy in their academic governance, are necessary homes for the best science and scholarship.

And if academia fails to be the home for this kind of research, researchers may be drawn to those who will provide a home outside of the university.

Philip G Altbach is emeritus professor and distinguished fellow in the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States. Tessa DeLaquil is postdoctoral fellow at the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University in Denmark.