Andrew Oswald: Why our scientists aren't winning Nobels

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The Independent Online

There are more British accents at the Nobel Prize ceremonies than one would guess from the paperwork. In 2003, we won Nobel Prizes in three separate fields. Unfortunately, there is a good reason why no one noticed: two of the three had worked for decades in the United States.

Here is a disturbing fact: the last time a researcher from our country's universities won a Nobel Prize in physics was in 1979. Abba were at the top of the charts.

Yet the UK managed five physics Nobel prizewinners in the 1970s. At the highest levels, something is going wrong, and to the best of my knowledge not enough is being done about it.

I take the appropriate nationality criterion to be the country that a Nobel Prize winner works in at the time of receiving the prize. If we use place of birth, things are more complicated, but interesting. A former United Kingdom citizen won the prize in physics in 2003. That person, Anthony Leggett, moved to the University of Illinois in the early 1980s. Nevertheless, whatever his passport may or may not now say, there is no point in describing him as anything other than an American scientist.

Leggett can write. A statement of his life may be found on the Nobel Prize website, which I went to in an attempt to work out why UK physics is off the boil. His piece is written with clarity and rhythm; as a tale, it is instructive. First, Leggett studied classics and philosophy. Refreshingly, and counter to the modern spirit of specialisation, he argues in his article that this helped in his thinking about the physical world.

Second, as a young man he went into physics because he felt that philosophy was too subjective and mathematics allowed for no interesting distinction between being correct and incorrect. He says that he wanted the possibility of being wrong without being stupid - of being wrong for interesting and non-trivial reasons. Physics seemed to fit that bill.

Third, Leggett explains that a key reason he ended up in physics is because of a rocket. In 1957, the Russians shot the Sputnik satellite into the skies. In this nation, the cry went up: "Why have we fallen behind?" That led to a flurry of scholarships and funding. As one piece of the jigsaw, a young chap called Leggett was able to switch quietly from Greek literature to Greek squiggles. And, years later, human beings' understanding of superconductors was radically altered.

What of other subjects? One of the Brits who flew to Stockholm in 2003 was Clive Granger. Like Leggett, he does not live in the UK; he has worked for a long time at the University of California at San Diego. Granger's prize, which officially is not part of the original Nobel Prizes descended from Alfred Nobel's will, was in the field of economics. My personal view is that the subject of economics is not quite ready for Nobel Prizes - I think it is insufficiently empirical - but that is not the fundamental point at issue here.

The third of the intellectual gladiators in Sweden that year was Peter Mansfield. He works at the University of Nottingham, and won the 2003 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine. Like Leggett, Mansfield spent time at the University of Illinois, but he was persuaded back to Nottingham at an early point in his career, and has remained. Although we got no prizes in this field in the 1990s, there have been three other winners - Timothy Hunt, Paul Nurse and John Sulston - in the current decade.

Chemistry, the other of the great sciences, deserves mention. Compared with physics, we have done better. Stockholm's walkway has seen John Walker (1997, Cambridge), Harry Kroto (1996, Sussex), Aaron Klug (1982, Cambridge), Fred Sanger (1980, Cambridge), and, before that, Peter Mitchell, John Cornforth and Geoffrey Wilkinson in the 1970s, and Derek Barton, George Porter, Dorothy Hodgkin, Max Perutz and John Kendrew in the 1960s.

Do we care about our lack of winners? If so, what is to be done? The problem seems to be a deep lack of career attractiveness. My undergraduates, all of whom have virtually perfect A-level scores and could easily have done hard science, want to make money. Research scientists' salaries are awful.

A painstaking study has just been released by the economist Richard B Freeman of Harvard University. He focuses on the dwindling supply of top-class bio-scientists in the USA, but the issues are identical. Freeman shows that low pay and poor prospects are the problem. His report says: "The leaders of the profession - the prominent investigators, the leading science departments, and, most importantly, the funding agencies - must act to reform a system that is in danger of losing a crucial element of its success, the nation's and the world's most promising young people."

The writer is a professor of economics at the University of Warwick