What Nobelists mean for US, Boston

Despite criticism, basic research often leads to breakthroughs

THE BOSTON AREA is a hotbed of Nobelists.  A number of prizewinners over the years have been on the faculties of local universities (e.g., at Harvard, MIT, and Boston University), and countless others have been educated locally or have passed through universities as faculty or postdocs on their way to fame elsewhere. Of the ten 2022 science prize-winners (physics, chemistry, physiology/medicine, economics), six hail from the United States, and five have a Boston connection either as students or (visiting) researchers or faculty.

Two of this year’s recipients were educated at Boston institutions. Carolyn R. Bertozzi – a joint winner of the chemistry prize (and the only woman in the 2022 Nobel cohort in the sciences) – completed a bachelor’s degree at Harvard, and Ben S. Bernanke – a joint recipient of the economics prize – received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a PhD from MIT. One of this year’s chemistry recipients – K. Barry Sharpless – was a member of the chemistry faculty at MIT in the 1970s and 1980s. Thus, it is useful to reflect on what the prizes mean for the Boston economy, universities, and scientific ecosystem—and higher education more broadly.

The Nobels recognize the best in basic research—the kind of research that may seem highly theoretical or esoteric when it is done, often much earlier in the winner’s career, but in most cases results in important practical results later or causes major rethinking of science as we understand it.

For example, Svante Pääbo is the winner in physiology-medicine, for sequencing the genome of the Neanderthal, work that was considered highly esoteric when done, which led to a significant rethinking of human evolution and resulted in the establishment of a new discipline—paleogenomics. Understanding the genetics of Neanderthals as the close relatives of homo sapiens helps us to better understand human physiology today.

John F. Clauser, in the physics category, conducted experiments in quantum physics to show how two particles are “entangled” and seem to act as if they were a single unit.  In an interview, Clauser made clear that doing this kind of research was not easy—trying to “topple” quantum mechanics – and that his colleagues warned him that he would ruin his career and that it was a waste of time.

Basic research has been much criticized in recent years for being impractical, expensive, or “blue sky” thinking. Funders and policy makers want quick, “relevant,” and innovative results—and are increasingly reluctant to pay for more theoretical research. Top research universities, in Boston and elsewhere, although perhaps too much focused on the bottom line, provide the academic freedom, “space,” and time necessary for talented researchers to pursue their ideas, even if sometimes these concepts seem highly unconventional. Much Nobel-quality research stems from original ideas that take shape in labs and classrooms all around Boston.

Another key aspect of this year’s Nobels is the international nature of scientific research in the 21st century. Again, the Boston area is a hub of international collaboration. Professors, post-docs, and students gravitate to the largely welcoming and internationalized academic culture of the region.

Anton Zeilinger, a joint prize-winner in the physics category was born in Austria, studied at the University of Vienna for both his bachelor’s and PhD degrees, and has been internationally mobile throughout his career – with visiting faculty and research positions in China, France, Germany, the UK, and the US.  In Boston, Zeilinger was a Fulbright fellow and later an associate visiting professor at MIT.

Douglas W. Diamond, a joint prize-winner in the economics category was born in the US, and studied at Brown and Yale, has held visiting faculty and research positions in Hong Kong, Japan, and Germany, and has also passed through Boston as a visiting professor at MIT.

 What do the Nobels tell us about science and higher education? The United States and, to a much lesser extent, France, Germany, and the UK, dominate the Nobels. While much has been said about the rise of Chinese universities, only one Nobel has been awarded to a Chinese scholar working in China (and to a woman) – Tu Youyou won the Nobel prize in physiology and medicine in 2015 for her work on discovering in traditional Chinese medicine a novel malaria therapy. There is, as yet, no sign that Chinese science, despite massive investment, is yielding Nobel-class basic research.

Why does the US dominate? It is a combination of academic freedom, a tradition of basic research, well-established research universities, high academic salaries, a welcoming academic system for international scholars, a combination of a competitive merit-based academic culture as well as cooperation in science, and relatively accessible competition-based grant and contract funding.

Indeed, over the years a significant number of Nobelists from many other countries have won their awards while working in the US—four of the 2021 Nobel cohort were born outside of the US but were affiliated with US institutions at the time of winning. But American success is threatened by a weakening of the academic profession—more part-time positions and public “disrespect”—and funding challenges in public universities. More attention needs to paid to the academic profession—and particularly to ensuring that women and underserved groups are supported for research careers.

As reflected in this year’s cohort, the number of women Nobelists in the sciences remains very small. Furthermore, and unsurprisingly, Nobelists are located at a small number of top universities and research institutes worldwide, and especially in the US. These institutions have prestige, money, facilities, and aggressively pursue academics with Nobel-potential wherever they are.

2022 has not been a particularly strong “Boston Year,” although the ecosystem remains strong, and the contribution of the Boston higher education system is certainly visible. But, like the Patriots, one cannot be a winner every year.

Philip G. Altbach is research professor and distinguished fellow at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, where Tessa de Laquil is research assistant and doctoral candidate.