Nobel endeavour: Britain should cherish – and nourish – its 'eureka' moments


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The Independent Online

The achievements of Sir Peter Higgs in identifying his eponymous boson are just the tip of the iceberg. The UK should be proud of the fact that it is second only to the US when it comes to Nobel Prize awards, and proud of the range of institutions responsible for this ground-breaking research. For while no British university or laboratory is named in the world top 10 for Nobel Prizes, the fact that awards granted to UK researchers were not concentrated at one or two elite universities is good news too.

The work of academics and researchers at a broad range of establishments made the Nobel grade, including the universities of Cardiff, Edinburgh and Nottingham, with most working alongside colleagues based overseas. Research prowess is not confined to universities, either: funders with their own research arms, such as Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust, were recognised. This is a celebration of the rich diversity of British research and development.

Yet though second in the world, the gulf between the UK and the US for Nobel-winning work is staggering. The US has won 71 prizes since the turn of the century, the UK just 12. Part of this is, of course, to do with size and scale. The US is drawing from a much larger pool of academic talent, and a greater number of establishments. But there is another issue, of which UK vice-chancellors and research funders (including the Government) ought to take note: US universities and businesses give their researchers the freedom they need to meet their intellectual potential.

Asian universities do not appear among the top performers in part because they do not offer the creative and free working environment that leads to “eureka” moments. The UK risks following suit. If the culture within universities becomes too heavily controlled by target setting and furious competition over scant funding, rather than the pursuit of knowledge and progress, the number of Nobel Prizes brought home will only fall.