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The Nobel Prizes: That Winning American Style

10 minute read

1979 awards continue U.S. domination of the sciences

They are the most prestigious prizes in the world. Besides a hefty stipend (now $190,000) and a gold medal, they bring instant fame, flooding winners with speaking invitations, job offers, book contracts and honorary degrees. So heady is the honor that Physicist Tsung Dao Lee, who became a Nobel laureate at the precocious age of 31, wondered what he could do for the rest of his life. Indeed, as the time of the announcements approaches each fall, many contenders are so afflicted with Nobel fever they literally jump whenever their telephones ring.

Last week the phones jangled for nine more winners, who, following the medicine award announced the previous week —to Allan Cormack, 55 (U.S.), and Godfrey Hounsfield, 60 (British)—completed this year’s prize slate of eleven. The 1979 list of winners is notable for several reasons. For once, the often controversial Peace Prize went to an individual beyond criticism or calumny: Mother Teresa, 69, who has spent a selfless lifetime working in the slums of Calcutta. The prize for literature went to the Greek lyric poet Odysseus Elytis. The twin economics prizes went to men whose concern has been the problems of the developing world.

In one vital respect, this year’s winning roster was similar to those of previous years: it had, overall, a distinctly American cast. Continuing their domination of the Nobel science prizes, Americans took two out of three of the physics awards, and one each of the twin medicine, chemistry and economics honors.

Indeed, at a time when the U.S. is beset with economic woes, an energy crisis, weak leadership and growing self-doubt, Americans can take unalloyed pride in the honors that have been bestowed on its men and women of science. Since 1946, 100 U.S. citizens have won Nobels in the sciences, more than half of the to tal number awarded and far more than America’s nearest rivals: Britain, with 34; Germany, 13; the Soviet Union, 8; and France, 5. The record is nearly as impressive in what Thomas Carlyle called the “dismal science.” Since the establishment of the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics in 1968, Americans have carried off eight of the 17 medals awarded. In the most impressive U.S. Nobel coup, seven Americans made a clean sweep of the awards in 1976, winning in economics, literature and all of the sciences (no Peace Prize was awarded that year).

This week’s winners, in addition to Mother Teresa and Poet Elytis:

PHYSICS: Sheldon Glashow, 46 (U.S.), Steven Weinberg, 46 (U.S.), and Abdus Salam, 53 (Pakistani), for their contributions to a theory that explains the relationship of two of nature’s basic forces: 1) electromagnetism, which accounts for such phenomena as sunlight and radio waves, and 2) the weak force that governs the release of a beta particle from the nucleus of an atom in a process called radioactive decay.

ECONOMICS: Sir Arthur Lewis, 64 (British), and Theodore Schultz, 77 (U.S.), for their work on the economic problems of developing nations. Lewis, born on the island of St. Lucia in the British West Indies, is the first black to win a Nobel other than the Peace Prize. He was the first president of the Caribbean Development Bank, has been an adviser to many developing countries, including Ghana, Nigeria and Jamaica, and wrote the classic The Theory of Economic Growth. Schultz did his earliest scholarly work on the problems of U.S. agriculture in the Depression era, and has advised many developing countries, urging them to stress agriculture rather than overly ambitious industrialization.

CHEMISTRY: Herbert C. Brown, 67 (U.S.), and Georg Wittig, 82 (German), for development of organic compounds that have led to the production of hundreds of vital chemical products, from Pharmaceuticals to pesticides. Brown developed a new family of compounds called organoboranes, which have become versatile tools in the synthesis of new chemicals. Wittig is best known for his Wittig reaction, which enabled chemists to link carbon and phosphorus to produce new, biologically active substances, including vitamin A.

Why the American pre-eminence in the Nobel science prizes? The answer seems to be money—and freedom, both personal and academic. Impressed by the great success of the partnership between Government and science during World War II, Washington continued an abundant flow of grants during the postwar era. Few questions were asked, few strings attached. Just do your thing, the bounteous Government seemed to say, and it was done, often magnificently.

A certain generosity of spirit accompanied the Government’s monetary largesse. There was no presumption that bureaucracy knows best; for the most part, bureaucracy kept hands off. Scientists were driven to probe the secrets of the universe not just by a compelling curiosity but by the heady air of freedom. “There’s no magic,” says Julius Axelrod, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1970. “It has something to do with the whole spirit of independence from the beginning of the American idea.”

That same freedom boosted American science in another way; it attracted many talented foreigners to the U.S. The role in American science of refugees from Nazi tyranny can scarcely be exaggerated.

An example is Arno Penzias, who fled from Germany in 1938 and shared the 1978 Nobel Prize for Physics. Says he: “In the U.S., there’s diversity, intellectual freedom and opportunity. It’s a place where energy can flourish.”

Paradoxically, America’s lack of longstanding intellectual traditions—in fact, its strain of anti-intellectualism—may also have helped the cause of science. The best minds have not been overburdened with required studies that are remote from their interests. Sir George Porter, a British chemist who won a Nobel in 1967, recalls that he had to put up a stiff fight to be allowed to study science instead of Latin or Greek at his grammar school in England. “Very few Americans speak ancient languages,” he says.-“But for 150 years there has been a tradition in America of appreciation of science.” Another factor, says M.I.T. Geophysicist Frank Press, science adviser to President Carter, is that “young scientists are pushed more rapidly here than in any other country in the world.”

How does all this differ from the nurturing of scientists in other advanced nations? Britain has a long tradition of scientific achievement and freedom—and, on a per capita basis, has scored well in the Nobel competition. But it could probably better its scientific output by making its educational system less rigid.

Though the Kremlin proclaims its allegiance to science, Soviet researchers are stifled by ideological tests and Communist doctrines. A prime example: the Stalin-blessed rule of a charlatan, the late Trofim Lysenko, over all biological research in the Soviet Union. Brooking no opposition to his discredited genetic theories, Lysenko dealt severely with scientific dissidents, putting Soviet biological science years behind that in the West.

In West Germany and France, what is known as the “Herr Professor” syndrome often prevails. Government grants tend to go to the professor who heads the department; he then distributes the money as he sees fit, even though he may not be in the best position to evaluate the work of a promising newcomer. Nor do teachers and students communicate as easily as they do in the U.S., where there is a give and take between the generations. Says Professor Heinz Maier-Leibnitz, president of the West German Research Society: “In America, you have to be different to be accepted. West German scientists are not very original. They don’t take risks. They watch what the others are doing, and in the end they all march in the same direction.”

In France, almost all scientific research is directed by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, an unwieldy bureaucracy that perpetuates the status quo. Because scientists who belong to the C.N.R.S. have civil service status, they cannot be fired once they have received tenure. Promotions are based on seniority rather than on competition. Says Michel Crozier, a research director at C.N.R.S.: “Once you have a system where procedures as well as promotions come from conforming to the social situation, it means that it is absolutely impossible to get people to cooperate in a bold venture.”

But will the halcyon days of U.S. preeminence in the sciences continue?

Some of the portents are ominous. To begin with, less money is flowing into pure science. While U.S. investment in basic research and development declined from 3% of the gross national product in 1964 to only 2.2% last year, the rate in West Germany, which has averaged 3%, rose last year to 3.2%. Between 1965 and 1977 the investment in Japan rose from 1.3% to 1.9%.

Washington has also considerably narrowed the freedom it once allowed in research. Emphasis has shifted from basic to goal-oriented research. Furthermore, to be eligible for federal grants, scientists must increasingly comply with a growing list of rules and regulations, some of them clearly too stringent and cumbersome. M.I.T. President Jerome Wiesner worries about the effects of the extraordinary amount of paper work required to obtain a federal grant. Usually the scientist, or his university, must fill out endless fact sheets crammed with trivial questions. OSHA wants a copy; the Defense Department requires five or six; HEW, DOE, EPA—all of the burgeoning flock of federal alphabet agencies—can and do demand a full response to their questions, or the grant is withheld.

Large segments of the public also seem to be changing their attitude toward science. During the turbulent 1960s, the stress on “relevant” studies convinced many students that helping others now was more important than grueling research that might benefit mankind later, a decision no doubt reinforced by the fact that the social sciences are frequently not so intellectually taxing as scientific research. A similar attitude has led to attacks on such training grounds for young scientists as Glashow and Weinberg’s alma mater, the Bronx High School of Science, which has been called “elitist” for insisting on tough admissions standards.

Harvard Sociologist David Riesman laments the “brain drain” from science.

“The ablest students I see are headed for law or medicine. Recruitment into science is no longer of the ablest but of the upper middle level. It’s been going on for five or six years.” One important reason, says Riesman, “is egalitarianism. We have a Lysenko lobby in this country—the Clamshell Alliance and others who think science is harmful, who feel guilty about it and try to paralyze it. They think it’s more important to distribute jobs among the needy than to do exotic research. There’s a lack of the sense of glory of science and its wonders, a feeling that it’s linear, not humane, not ‘with it.’ ” To his credit, President Carter, trained as an engineer, now seems to be fighting this trend and pushing for more funding for basic research. But many scientists doubt that this new generosity will be enough. Chemist Philip Abelson, editor of Science, notes that Nobel prizes are usually awarded long after the work they honor has been performed. “Don’t misunderstand,” he says. “The U.S. has hardly fallen out of the tree. But stick around ten years to see the results of our current domestic attitudes.” Thus the 1979 Nobels are really the harvest of seeds planted many years earlier. The question is whether the U.S. can repeat those triumphs in the future, when the benefits of science and technology will be even more critical than they are now to the nation’s wellbeing.

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