Nobel Prizes in Science: Which Country is ‘Winning’?

I spent way too long looking into data* on Nobel prizes in the sciences. I was going to make a video about it, but I think the graphs are best here in a blog post for you to look through. I wanted to see how different countries compared in terms of the number of Nobel Prizes in science (Physiology or Medicine; Chemistry; and Physics) that they won relative to things like their size and GDP. I’m not the first to do this sort of analysis.

Seven of Nine of the Nobel laureates in science this week were American (Star Trek pun-resistance was futile). Thats a lot, but, we’d also expect that for a modernized western country with hundreds of millions of people; they ought to bring home the gold. They have won 195 science Nobels so far in the history of the awards, more than any other nation, thats 0.6 prizes per million people – not bad, right? Well, it’s actually not that great. If we look at the top ten countries for ‘science prizes per person’, America comes out in… tenth place.

Nobel prizes in science for ten countries, compared with population sizes

I’m not so surprised to see a bunch of European countries (with Switzerland at the top), some Scandinavian countries, and the USA. I should note here, I’m only evaluating countries that have won at least five prizes, otherwise the Faroe Islands would win hands down – at 20.8 prizes per million people (one of their 49 thousand residents won a Nobel prize). Ok, let’s dig a little deeper.

Let’s keep comparing these ten countries because, honestly I don’t have the time to get this data for all the countries that have won these things. What about if we sort them by gross domestic product (GDP)?  After all, research is expensive!

Nobel prizes in science for ten countries, compared with national GDPs

America is still coming out on the bottom, and very little else changes.

Okay, so remember when I said I spent too much time with this data? Well, the truth is that I went through all of the hundreds of nobel laureates in science for these countries, and looked into who was born where. Turns out that these scientists do a lot of travelling around. At this point, I’ll admit, my data got a little sloppy because I didn’t realize how complicated things would be to account for (I’ll spare the details).

Fun Fact: In 1940, chemist Georgy de Hevesy dissolved Niels Bohr’s 23-karat gold nobel prize medal in acid to avoid having it stolen by the Nazis. Image by Benjamin Arthur for NPR

More than any other country on our list, prizes won by Americans were not won by people who were born there.

84 out of 195 American science laureates (43%) were not born in America. Compare that to the general rate of 13% foreign-born across the American population, and see that there is definitely something happening here. America is doing a bad job at raising Nobel prize-winning scientists, at fostering young minds. On the other hand,  they are doing a really good job at the university-level, attracting top researchers from the globe more than anywhere else. Personally, I see data and it makes me think of: the awesomeness of immigrants, and for the importance of improving childhood STEM education in America.

Nobel prizes in science for ten countries, compared with where those laureates were born.

Only four American researchers took home science-gold in foreign countries, compared with Germany at the other end of the spectrum, with a staggering 23 scientists who left Germany for Nobels elsewhere (data not shown). It seems like those countries need to teach each other how to run schools and universities.

Lastly, how focussed on science are these countries?** Well, comparing the number of science awards to total awards (including economics, literature, and peace) then curiously, Norway, Sweden, and America are the most “artsy” (somewhere someone is shaking their head reading this, ‘artsy’, pft.) and Germany is the most hardcore-science minded of our set, winning nearly nothing but SCIENCE.

Nobel prizes in science (Chemistry, Physics, and Medicine) compared with other fields (Economics, Peace, and Literature) for ten countries.

Hopefully someone finds some of this interesting! I feel like a lot of it just confirms suspicions/stereotypes that I already held, but its really interesting to see that even with a small dataset like Nobel prizes (only 911 people have ever won a Nobel prize), you can see some really neat trends.

I agree with science writer Ed Yong that having Nobel prizes in science is actually just ridiculous, so I’ll leave off with a quote from Richard Feynman about the Nobel Prize that he felt shoe-horned into receiving:  “I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish academy just decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize — I’ve already gotten the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding a thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it — those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors.”

Richard Feynman didn’t want his Nobel Prize, and called it a “pain in the ass!”. Classic Rick.


*This data came from lots of sifting through wikipedia, and I’m not sure my dataset is any more organized/legible than that. Still, if anyone expresses interest in it, I’d be happy to tidy it up and make it available.

** Thanks to Eric Holmes for pointing out an error I made in the final table – the percentages had gotten mixed up. Fixed now!

My Heart Rate When I Quit My Job


My Fitbit data shows that my heart shot up to 106 beats per minute (bpm) when I quit my job as a science teacher. Thats far above my resting heart rate for the day (60bpm). This wasn’t because I was flipping tables in rage, in fact, the human resource manager where I taught is fantastic, and it was a great chat filled with understanding. For a lot of reasons, I was very sad to be leaving – there are a lot of fantastic people there that I will miss. However, the real reason my heart rate went up because I was keenly aware of how pivotal this moment was in my life. I was leaving my secure job as a teacher, and making a leap for some still-amorphous thing I’d dreamt of doing for a decade. Those were existentialist heartbeats. I was finally going to make science videos for a living.

Way back in High School, 10 years ago, I made a video for my Communication Studies class where my reflection chased me around in a dream. I called it “The Chase”, because I was 17. I only uploaded it to YouTube after my Communication Studies teacher cut me a deal that if I submitted it to some “film festival” thing then I wouldn’t have to do the photography dark-room unit. I thought I had him duped – so much less work for me, and the dark room sounded boring. What a sweet deal! Little did I know that I’d win that film festival (a youth branch of TIFF), and end up falling so in love with making videos that I’d spend every possible moment of my spare time in that classroom in the following year. I guess you duped me after all, Mr. Bourdeau. Thanks!

Me chasing my High-School-self in my first-ever YouTube video

So now, exactly a decade later, having gone to a few universities, lived in a few cities, and having won a few more film festivals, I’m doing it – I’m now going to make videos for a living. How am I going to do this? Good question. Hmm.. Really good question. Should I have thought this through more? Oh god!

But really, when I quit, I had a plan. I was going to be doing more contracted videos for schools, universities, and companies, with a focus on science and general educational content. After casually mentioning to some friends that I am up for hire, and quickly seeing how much demand there is for science-literate videographers, I realized: hey, I should really dive into this. I still plan on doing that, but the weeks that followed my resignation gave me an even more insane idea. This is what happened:

While I’d been making YouTube videos in a very non-serious way for 10 years, the notion of actually making any real money on YouTube hadn’t even occurred as an actual possible thing I could do until this until two weeks after I quit my job, when my YouTube views had really sky-rocketed. My channel generally got less than 100 views a day, usually closer to 25. Suddenly my channel was getting thousands a day, eventually hitting 10,686 views on the last day of school. I realized, hey, a lot of people are enjoying watching this stuff. Then a very scary thought hit me: if I could get and sustain four times that viewership, I could make a living off of the ads in my videos. I mean, I’d be tight-roping the poverty-line at that point (if it was my only source of income), and sustaining four times the maximum views I’d ever gotten was a long shot, but maybe it wasn’t completely impossible. Besides, there might be additional income streams besides ads, right? Maybe things like sponsors, patrons, grants, and oh yah, that whole ‘freelance videography’ thing I’d originally left my job for. So far, I’ve only been putting a few hours a week into The Scope of Science – just some Friday afternoons – and if I treated it like a part-time job, who knows what might happen. Worst case scenario, it’ll be like I did a self-directed grad school program in making science videos.

Well, I spent the summer tutoring, re-cooping from the hectic-ness of being a teacher, and planning for my new life as a video-maker. Now here we are. Back at it; more than ever. Expect more YouTube videos, more regularly, and of higher quality.

Wish me luck, and brace yourselves for SCIENCE!

Oh, and you should totally subscribe if you haven’t already done that!

Stop Wasting Science

So you do a lot of amazing research, whatever. Your research will not matter to anyone else on Earth – at least, not until you make it accessible to them. If we’re not making it available, we’re just wasting science.

The number of research projects that are sitting in desk drawers waiting to be written and published, or those that get published but remain behind paywalls is saddening. But with the boom of open-access journals, that is rapidly changing. There are some growing pains – including the high rate of fake and falsified papers.

If you do a lot of amazing research, and publish it in an open access journal, there is still a chance that a lot of your work is being wasted. Looking through a few papers I recently read (this is called a biased sample), the average journal article has roughly about 5-10 tables and figures. I’ve seen enough of other researcher’s excel sheets to know that this summary is hardly the tip of the iceberg. This isn’t the print era anymore, publishing data is very possible. But, well, where is all the data?


In most cases, it is sitting on aging hard-drives under file names that quickly forget their ways into obscurity. Some lucky files manage to make their way onto websites like FigShare and Research Gate, while some Big Datasets (like genomics data) are too big to have a home anywhere on the internet.

There are a number of astonishing recent studies, meta studies, that use the results from hundreds or thousands of papers to come to fascinating conclusions. These papers are just a glimpse into what the future of meta-analysis has at hand. They are a glimpse at how essential making data accessible is going to be in just a few years.

Researchers are all about getting publications, and that is understandable, given the pressures that they are under. However, a lot of signs indicate that those pressures are changing. We are on the brink of a revolution in science. If you want to stay competitive you would just be silly not to start making your data available now.