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!

Are Mushrooms Plants?

I’m super obsessed with Fungi… In fact, I know this is only the first of many videos on fungi that I will make. In this little foray into fungi taxonomy, we go into what separates mushrooms from plants: why they are different and how we know. Hopefully there are some fungi facts you find surprising, because this is indeed one of the strangest groups in the kingdom of life.

The Class That Made Me Stop Taking Science

I stopped taking science half-way through High School. I wouldn’t take another science class for 5 years, and here I am now 10 years later doing my MSc. I often wonder how differently things could have gone in my life if I’d had a different academic experience in science at a younger age.

This is the story about the last class I took. I think there is a lesson here for any teacher or student, and I hope my experience can be useful to someone out there.