Magazine | December 21, 2009, Issue

The Uncertainty Principle

(Darren Gygi)
America dominates science with a classic American formula: freedom

When the 2009 Nobel Prizes were announced, Barack Obama’s peace award came as a shock, but no one was surprised that of the nine winners of Nobel science prizes (chemistry, physics, and medicine), six had done their research at American institutions. The United States has dominated science Nobels for many decades, accounting for at least half the laureates in every decade since the 1950s.

Doomsayers keep predicting that the U.S. will be overtaken by a prosperous and united Europe and a confident and powerful China (India too, eventually). Our public schools, it is said, do such a bad job of nurturing scientific talent that the pipeline will eventually dry up. Yet however true this may be, America has maintained supremacy in science the same way it does in baseball: with talented immigrants and plenty of money.

Since 1946, 62 immigrants to the U.S. have won Nobel Prizes in science, while only one U.S. expatriate has done so. Over the last quarter century, America’s score is 26 in, 0 out. The U.K., by contrast, is 3 in and 6 out in that period; Germany is 1 in, 3 out. Admittedly, these totals can be shifted a bit by fiddling with the counting rules, and prizes are sometimes given for work done decades in the past, but America’s strong and enduring attraction for scientists is unmistakable.

Money is a big part of it, to be sure. Totaling up all sources, public and private, the U.S. spends about 2.6 percent of its GDP on research and development. This compares with 2.0 percent in the EU — though the EU’s GDP is larger, and other nations, such as Japan, South Korea, and Israel, spend a higher percentage than the U.S. does. America’s dominance results not only from prosperity, but from another vital American attribute: freedom. While scientific research in other industrialized nations is centralized, hierarchical, and bureaucratic, in America it is competitive and entrepreneurial.

This is not to say that politics plays no role in deciding how American science is funded; far from it. But in America, governmental sources of funding are much more diffuse (half a dozen federal agencies and departments spend at least $1 billion a year on basic research), and private sources are much more numerous, than in most European or East Asian nations. It all adds up to strength through pluralism.

Consider the last five years of science Nobelists. Of the 37 total laureates, 21 did the bulk of their research in America — and those 21 came from 18 different institutions. These included seven public universities in five different states (California, Colorado, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Utah); an equal number of private universities (Caltech, Columbia, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Stanford, and Yale); and research laboratories public (Fermilab, NASA) and private (Woods Hole, Bell Labs).

And while Nobel Prize winners are a tiny if high-profile group, examining broader measures yields an even starker picture of American predominance. When major physics institutions are ranked by citations per paper — a statistic meant to emphasize quality of research over quantity — 18 of the top 20 are American, including four separate campuses of the University of California. In chemistry, the U.S. has 13 of the top 15. In molecular biology, the U.S. has 6 of the top 10 by citations per paper, but 9 of 10 by total citations.

This American free-for-all contrasts sharply with the situation in most European countries. The most centralized and bureaucratic system is found, unsurprisingly, in France. Imagine scientific research as run by the SEIU, and you’ll have an idea of what French science is like. Most scientific personnel — including researchers at all levels, technicians, and administrators — are civil servants with lifetime tenure. Rigid hierarchies ensure that young researchers pay their dues before moving up the ladder to supervisory roles, which is why so many of them leave France for the U.S. When France’s scientists are not marching in the streets to demand more money, they are marching in the streets to protest any reduction in their privileges.

The dirigiste Paris government decides what areas of research are high priorities, which laboratories will be “centers of excellence,” and how many people will be hired in what fields. It also classifies France’s top educational and research institutions as grands organismes, grands établissements, and grandes écoles, with bureaucratic strictures ensuring that there will be little contact between the different groups. The result: While the home of Pasteur and Curie still produces plenty of excellent science, France’s eight Nobel Prizes in the last quarter century add up to less than half of America’s per-capita rate.

In Britain, private charitable trusts play a greater funding role, but there, too, government policymakers do their best to concentrate money and excellence in a handful of institutions. For example, in the last three decades, half of Britain’s Nobelists in medicine or chemistry did their research at a single place: the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology, in Cambridge. As is true in most of the world, American-style private universities are virtually unknown; most universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, have some degree of autonomy but rely heavily for funding on the central government, which controls tuition rates and other policies. This makes them highly susceptible to political pressures, economic fluctuations, cronyism, and all the other ills that accompany government spending — including the fact that governments can’t choose winners or predict future developments in science any better than they can forecast the economy.

The same is true, with local variations, in the rest of Europe (and Japan as well): The central government allocates money, sets priorities, establishes guidelines, and develops plans and projections, deciding which institutions and which areas of research will be looked upon with favor. With the EU taking an increasing role in research funding, the red tape has only gotten stickier. As you’d expect, the EU prefers cross-border projects that give a piece of the pie to as many member states as possible, and its procedures are even more convoluted than those of the national science bureaucracies. One Euroscientist compares an EU grant application to a very expensive lottery ticket: It takes about a year of full-time work from a senior scientist to prepare, but if it is successful, the payoff is a huge pile of money.

To be sure, public and private research grants in the United States are subject to many of the same problems. But America’s profusion of funding sources makes it easier for researchers with good ideas to shop around and find a willing partner. The states play a key role in this: In 2004, when California was unhappy with federal restrictions on the funding of stem-cell research, it allocated $3 billion of its own for the purpose; in 2007 Texas allocated $3 billion for a cancer-research initiative. And it’s not limited to the big boys: State universities in places like Iowa and Utah have achieved outstanding research records in science and technology. Americans can consider themselves fortunate that except for the service academies, there is no system of national universities.

Another structural advantage is that American universities, with wealthy private institutions setting the pace, fund young scientists generously. Harry Witchel, an American-educated senior lecturer in physiology at England’s Brighton and Sussex Medical School, says: “The start-up funding for a promising new faculty member at a good U.S. university can be on the order of $300,000 to $500,000, which is enough to have two or three top employees for three years. Those sums of money are only available in the U.K. for very senior, very successful academics.” Witchel points out that “the U.K. is first in the G8 on scientific productivity, with almost 32 papers recorded for every billion dollars of GDP.” Yet because British university endowments are small, with education seen as the government’s responsibility, a young researcher is lucky to get one-tenth as much as she would in America.

As long as our federal and state governments recognize the importance of scientific research and are willing to finance it through economic ups and downs (in tandem with private sources, of course), America will keep developing and attracting top scientific talent and will remain at the forefront of discovery. Equally important, though, is America’s vigorous economy, which supports science through public and charitable channels and encourages research by private companies; a mobile and entrepreneurial scientific workforce; and competition at every level — within institutions, between institutions, and between states, federal agencies, and military branches. All these factors benefit from the absence of any federal Department of Science and Technology — despite the assumption in many quarters that if something is important, it must have its own cabinet secretary.

Will America stay number one? Prof. William Happer of Princeton University, a physicist who was director of energy research at the U.S. Department of Energy in the early 1990s, is unsure: “It is true that biomedical research is funded like nowhere else in the U.S., but I don’t think we do as well as Europe in non-biomedical science funding like physics or chemistry. And China is really coming on strong.” (Happer, an anthropogenic-global-warming skeptic, does point out that “the last time I checked, we also outspend any other country in the world on climate-change research.”)

Happer’s tenure at DoE coincided with the department’s attempt to build the Superconducting Super Collider, which foundered in Congress on its high cost. For funding big-ticket items like that, Europe and China may hold the advantage; they’re good at spending lots of money with little squawking from the citizens. Yet while Happer calls the SSC’s demise “a tragedy for science,” he cautions: “I would rather accept mistakes made by the people or their elected representatives than live with mistakes made by scientific bureaucrats.” America’s hodge-podge of scientists, institutions, and funding agencies — imperfect though it may be — is the closest thing the world has to a free market in science, and the results can be seen in Nobel Prizes, citations, and the steady influx of researchers from abroad who know that the United States is the land of scientific opportunity.

Fred SchwarzFred Schwarz is a deputy managing editor of National Review.

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