Business can be a Nobel pursuit

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The gap between American universities and the rest of the world is widening. The week in which the Nobel Prizes are awarded is an opportune time to ask why.

At the beginning of the 20th century, advanced research in the US looked to Europe for leadership, values and inspiration. It does so no longer. In the years up to the second world war, Europe won 109 Nobel prizes in science while 13 went to the US. Since 1969, Europe has received 85 awards and the US 158.

More state control means fewer Nobel prizes. Germany once secured more awards than any other country but German universities have never recovered from the invasion of ideology and the expulsion of Jews under Nazi rule. French universities have been in decay for a long time. The French government sought to compensate by supporting separate research institutes but, increasingly politicised and chauvinist, their status has declined. The first Italian prize for 20 years, announced on Tuesday, went to a physicist whose academic career has been in the US.

As Germany faded, Britain took the lead in Europe, with 46 awards in the 40 years after the war. But the progressive nationalisation of UK universities has taken its toll. Two awards this week take the British total since 1984 to 12. Only three of these have gone to scientists at British universities.

The decisive influence of the nature of control emerges in the US itself. Only a sixth of US laureates since 1969 were from state universities. In USA Today’s ranking of US universities, the leading public institution, Berkeley, is 20th. But Berkeley is probably still a better university than any outside the US – only Cambridge has a comparable record for Nobel prizes.

Bureaucracy and genius do not mix well. Few great researchers enjoy sitting on committees and completing appraisals. If the vice you most fear is elitism, and the quality you value most is consensus, you can say goodbye to research excellence. Oxford’s true problem is not that it is elitist but that it is no longer elitist enough. Social and academic elitism are not the same thing. Any worthwhile institution admits clever people regardless of background. But academic high-flyers are on average more likely to attend good schools and come from comfortable backgrounds. Institutions representative of the population will contain very few Nobel prizewinners. Political correctness is the enemy of independent inquiry.

Harvard, Chicago and Stanford are private institutions only in a limited sense. They are not profit-making businesses. Much of their funding comes from government; but they are accountable to independent trustees – mostly business people – and those who run them have the ability and confidence to put the phone down when government rings. Commercial companies produce little Nobel prizewinning research, although the record of Bell Labs puts almost all universities to shame. But that exception proves the rule: Bell Labs was an autonomous research organisation supported by a rich company. Commercialised as Lucent Technologies, it has not been successful in either the marketplace or the Nobel rankings.

The model of independent institutions accountable to apolitical trustees outperforms all others in research excellence by such a margin that there is no longer any contest. Foundations exemplify this – the economic impact of the Rockefeller Foundation’s support for research is probably of more economic significance than its founder’s creation of Standard Oil. The bright spot in European scientific research is medicine, propped up by the Wellcome Trust and other charities.

My personal experience is that business people are more receptive to innovation, and more committed to excellence, than academic administrators, civil servants or politicians. They are the best, as well as the best-funded, supporters of research and that is the direct cause of US dominance in advanced science.

Does it matter? The results of the basic research that wins Nobel prizes are available to everyone. Perhaps we should be grateful that Americans are more ready to pay for it. But closeness to advanced science has many spillovers. It is no accident that Silicon Valley is beside Stanford University. Superstars attract stars, and stars attract more modest talents, so that the graduate programmes of the great US universities are now magnets for the best intellects from around the world. US dominance in research excellence has been matched by US dominance in commercial innovation. It is probably no coincidence.

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