Note how abruptly scientific leaders can become followers: in the first decades of the 20th century, when Heidelberg and Freiburg were at the center of the academic universe, Germany won more Nobel prizes than any other country: 38 between 1901 and 1931, outpacing the U.S. by a factor of two and a half. But Nazism and the Second World War decimated Germany’s academic apparatus, and the U.S. recruited many of its best scientists. Between 1950 and 1980, Germany won just 16 Nobel prizes. The United States took 117.
The United States owes much to its commanding lead in scientific research, including technological advancement, prosperity and security. Whether it will be able to retain that lead is an important question whose answer depends on whether the country is willing to maintain its warm embrace of science: generous government support in the form of research grants and measures to make higher education accessible; reasonably open borders that make it possible to bring in the world’s best minds; and rich universities and foundations that support long-term theoretical research.
My graphic is in a way a lagging indicator of scientific leadership, since Nobel Prizes typically recognize discoveries published between ten and thirty years earlier. Two important fields of research have moved toward other parts of the world since the late 1990s: stem cell investigation, which relies largely on private support in the U.S. because of Bush-era research restrictions; and experimental high-energy physics, which has a promising new tool at CERN in Switzerland and France. The U.S. still vastly outspends every other country on basic research, as it should, and is home to the world’s best research institutions. But our leaders must remember how easy it is to fall behind–particularly when emergent powers decide to make science a priority.
A note about my methodology: I made this graphic by scraping data fromnobelprize.org, which lists both birthplace and current affiliation (at the time of award) for most, but not all, recipients. In cases where the site lists current affiliation, I used that to locate laureates (a German-born professor working at the University of Chicago when he won the prize would thus be listed under the United States). That’s consistent with the spirit of my argument: other countries may produce future laureates, but they end up in the U.S. by the time they win. In cases where affiliations were not listed (mostly for literature and peace prizes), I used birth country to place the laureate in the graphic. The lines from United States through Russia represent the seven countries with the most Nobel laureates, in order. I added Japan and China to the graphic, skipping some countries with more prizes, because they exhibit interesting acceleration trends.