Lessons for higher education, 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 recognize the best scientists and their discoveries, but they also have lessons for universities and contemporary science.

It is worth thinking about some general trends of this year’s Nobel Prize winners. It is, of course, necessary to understand that the Nobel Prizes, with few exceptions, recognize the impressive scientific achievements of recent decades and “reward those discoveries which have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” – but academia, perhaps especially at the highest levels of research universities, is slowly changing.

Who and where?

We can briefly summarize who received this year’s awards and where they are. This year’s 10 winners were all men (in 2020 three out of 10 were women), as is unfortunately the norm for these awards – only 25 women have ever received a Nobel Prize in science.

This year’s laureates are currently affiliated with universities in just three countries – seven in the United States, two in Germany and one in Italy. Three are located in research institutes (two at the German Max Planck Institutes and one at the Howard Hughes American Medical Institute) and seven at universities. As usual, Affiliate Universities are leading, highly funded and well-recognized research universities eg Stanford University and Princeton University.

The origin, education and careers of the 2021 Nobel Prize winners

Interestingly, only two of this year’s Nobel laureates were born in the United States (others were born in Japan, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom, Lebanon, Canada and the Netherlands) , although six in ten are currently working in the United States.

Six in 10 obtained their doctorates from American universities, two from Germany and one from Japan and one from Italy. Their undergraduate origins, on the other hand, reflect the diversity of the awardees’ countries of birth – only two in ten graduated from US institutions. The rest studied in Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, Scotland, Japan, Italy and Lebanon, all at top universities and colleges.

The career profiles of Nobel laureates are also important. For the 2021 cohort, only four stayed in a single country (the United States), sometimes with multiple career moves between top universities, while the other six worked in different countries – ranging from visiting professors to posts to full-time.

These experiences often include the countries of birth of the laureates, but also other national contexts which have leading institutions, such as Germany and the United Kingdom.

Science is international, but limited and layered

The education and careers of this year’s Nobel Laureates show that top scientists are indeed internationally mobile. Some have held positions in multiple countries – all in leading institutions – and they tend to gravitate towards countries with the most advanced scientific institutions, particularly the United States.

The careers of this year’s Nobel Laureates are international, but within an elite circle, indicating the breadth of global science and the importance of cross-fertilization of ideas. The educational and professional paths of this year’s Nobel laureates (as can also be seen in other recent cohorts), especially in terms of graduate student mobility, academic exchanges and some cases of international collaborative work spouse, may signal a shift in the makeup of elite academics in academia to include more features of research internationalization.

The 2021 Nobel Laureates, like in previous years, are largely confined in terms of universities currently affiliated with a few countries, with no representation this year except in Europe and the United States.

It should be noted that in some cases the research leading to the Nobel Prize took place in an institution or country separate from the affiliation or current location of the laureates.

There are still few signs of the “rise of Asia”, despite massive investments in research made especially by China and the existence of leading universities in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore.

It is true that the Nobel Prizes are a “lagging indicator” of scientific achievement, but one would expect that the near-monopoly of North America and Western Europe has been weakened somewhat by this day.

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

It is clear that the United States dominates the Nobel Prize for Science. In 2021, scientists working at American universities won seven out of ten awards. Of course, not all of the recipients were born or educated in the United States. For that year, only two were born in the United States and went to undergraduate studies, although six received their doctorates from American universities. This is not unusual and shows the attractiveness of American research universities.

The Nobel Prizes show that basic science is both concentrated and layered. Over the past two decades, 103 out of a total of 230 Nobel Prizes in the four fields of science have been won by scientists born in the United States. 38 others were born in other English-speaking countries.

It’s not always the case. Before World War II, German-speaking countries occupied a high rank – but the Nazi regime destroyed German scientific domination. Indeed, until 1948, Germany often led the way in terms of the number of awards per citizenship, when the UK dominated for a number of years until the US overtook the number in 1960, in part due to the immigration of Jewish scientists and others fleeing Nazi oppression.

Could the United States and other English-speaking countries lose their dominant position in the years to come? Despite the much heralded “rise of China” and some evidence of the geographical spread of basic research, the balance is unlikely to change fundamentally in the foreseeable future.

The ecosystem of top US universities is stable – good infrastructure, culture of research excellence, high salaries (by global academic standards), competitively available research funding, academic freedom and autonomy reasonable and, most importantly, the ability and willingness to attract and retain the world’s best talent.

Some changes are possible, perhaps probable and highly desirable. The expansion of innovative basic research globally would diversify topics and people. And the wave of academic excellence initiatives taking place in 15 countries, including China, Russia, Germany, France, and others could, in the medium term, strengthen top 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 undeniably giving an advantage to countries using English as a mother tongue.

The importance of basic research

Nobel Prize-level research clearly operates in a rarefied stratosphere of global science. And in today’s “results-oriented” university atmosphere, the kind of long-term thinking and orientation towards basic research is seen as an unaffordable luxury by most governments and universities.

Yet, as Nobel Prize committees annually recognize, it is precisely this basic research that yields the most brilliant long-term practical results – such as the work of David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian on the discovery of temperature receptors and of touch, which Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health, suggests may support the development of pain treatment.

The question then becomes whether, in our efforts to support the internationalization of research through funding, mobility and collaboration programs, we should also re-evaluate our approach to supporting basic research on a global scale.

Philip G Altbach is Professor-Researcher and Distinguished Fellow, and Tessa DeLaquil is a Doctoral Candidate and Research Assistant at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, USA.


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