Saturday, October 16, 2004

Europe vs. America, Nobel, and science

All Nobel prizes in 2004 have been decided, and it's fun to look at the nationality of the winners.

First, there are two Nobel prizes that I don't view quite seriously anymore, namely the awards for peace and literature. The peace prize went to a militant environmentalist woman from Kenya, while the Nobel prize for literature was given to an Austrian pornographic feminist communist writer (with a Czech last name; Jelinek means a "little deer"). Well, both of these women sort of fit the general political pattern of the previous winners - for example, Yasser Arafat was also a hero of the peace prize - and if I knew these ladies in advance, they would almost certainly be expected candidates for me.

Let's now look at the more serious prizes, namely for physics, chemistry, medicine, and economics. The latter is not quite a Nobel prize, according to the Nobel purists, but let me call it a Nobel prize anyway because the history of the Nobel prizes seems pretty irrelevant.

Most of the winners of these "non-trivial" prizes are Jews, and most of the winners are affiliated with the US institutions. Well, it's not too surprising that at least five of them are Jews: two Israeli winners, Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion in Haifa, share the award for chemistry with another Jew, namely Irwin Rose from the USA, while the physics winners David Gross and David Politzer who are also Jews from the States shared the asymptotically free Nobel prize with Frank Wilczek. Frank's family came to the USA from Poland and Italy, but my understanding is that he is not a Jew.

The Jewish nation has a long tradition of respect to education and science - it may even be better if you're a good student as opposed to a football player - and a significant portion of the leaders of theoretical physics are Jewish. In fact, my diploma advisor from Prague told us the following true joke about antimatter:

Besides our Universe, there also exists an anti-Universe where everything is anti-. For example, one of the important sciences over there is antiphysics, and it is studied by Anti-Semites.

Let's now look at the citizenship of the laureates. All three physics winners are Americans, much like one of three chemistry winners and both laureates of the Nobel prize for medicine. One of two economics Nobel prize winners is an American; the other one is Norwegian, but he is affiliated with three U.S. institutions.

Well, articles have been written about America losing its dominance its sciences. Other nations start to catch up with the States, they said. The percentage of American articles in prestigious journals is decreasing, and so forth. The reason may be that the visa obstacles slow down the inflow of brains to the USA, and so forth.

The Nobel prizes don't quite inform us about the present situation - the physics laureates had to wait for 29 years, for example - nevertheless it is obvious that the dominance of America in the science Nobel prizes continues to be overwhelming. Let's try to find the reasons why Europe (and Japan etc.) is behind. There are three main reasons:
  • money
  • prestige of the US institutions
  • way of thinking
Concerning money: the USA spends roughly 270 billion dollars per year for science - which is a rather large number, it's more than one half of the budget deficit haha. On the other hand, the European Union only spends 120 billion per year. Well, that make a difference.

But money are not the whole issue. America is able to attract brains from the world also because its universities are more prestigious. They are more prestigious because there is a lot of money flowing over there, but it is really not the only reason.

The third point is the "way of thinking". Since the 1960s, Europe focused on applied sciences and it simply has not rewarded risk-taking and basic research as much as America. America is the place where the scientists can afford to have big goals, even risky ones - and big dreams often come true.

String theory may be the best example. Its ambition is nothing less than a theory of everything. There is a plenty of reasons to be convinced that these ambitions are probably realistic; on the other hand, there is no guarantee that things will work out perfectly at the end. String theory definitely requires risk-taking, and therefore it is mostly a product of the US scholars. (Thanks to Gabriele Veneziano from CERN who really started the whole field.)

Many places in Europe - England, the Netherlands, and Italy (Triest), among others - are doing very good work, but America is still ahead. On the other hand, there are still many countries in Europe where string theory does not exist. The Czech Republic is an example - Josef Kluson and Rikard von Unge from Masaryk's university in Brno continue to be the only exceptions. There is no string theory in Prague whatsoever. But the Czech Republic is certainly not the only example in Europe.

Europe is also rather fragmented, despite the unification process. The ideas about European unification sometimes apply to bureaucrats only, but the real "unity" does not generalize to the lives of normal people, and science is an example. It is still very unusual that a scientist from Brno would travel to Vienna to attend a seminar even though these two places are closer than many pairs of highly connected places in the USA.

Even though I said that Europe has focused on the applied sciences, it is still true that the thinking of their American colleagues is usually more pragmatic, more realistic, more balanced, in a sense, even if they work on very ambitious (and perhaps even rather abstract) projects. Science in the USA is more practical, more connected with the real applications and with the commercial sector.

Only time will show whether the dominance of the USA in sciences (including economics) will fade; the Nobel prizes don't seem to indicate it at all so far. Everyone else like Europe can take over, but Europe would first have to adopt certain features of American thinking - and it does not seem terribly likely at this moment.

The discussions above did not mention Japan and other places in the world - especially because I know next to nothing about their climate. My guess is that whatever I said about Europe applies to Japan, too.


  1. Lubos:

    The World-Wide Web came out of CERN, but that achievement does not get a Nobel Prize.

    Anyway, in my opinion, the world is heading into a severe crisis - regarding energy, the environment, overpopulation, fresh water availability, etc. - unless we find technological solutions, and so progress in science and technology is very important. Whether or not the US is dominant is less important than whether overall the world is moving faster.

    Within the US, I would note the demise or diminishment of the big industrial labs, such as Bell Labs (where among myriads of things, the transistor was invented, where the cosmic background radiation was first detected). I think the amount of science being done in HP, Xerox, IBM, AT&T/Lucent has gone down to near zero. The defense industry also used to be a big sponsor of research, as far as I know, this stream, too, has (relatively) dried up.

    Now, it may be the advances to be had are no longer in the physics/optics/engineering/computing areas but in bio-technology, and maybe as these old industrial labs decline, new ones are coming up sponsored by the pharmaceutical and bio-tech companies. Maybe.

    I do recall over a decade ago, professors at Caltech comparing what they were able to teach in the freshman physics then, with a decade prior, and saying that the preparation of the undergraduates in math and physics had gone down. If this trend has continued, then US science is increasingly dependent on foreign students. Post-9/11 Visa problems have cut down the intake during the last 3 years.

    So, I think complacency would be a mistake.


  2. Hi Arun!

    I also think that the WWW would deserve a Nobel prize, but for technology. There's no Nobel prize for technology! Moreover, Al Gore may have shared one half of that prize since he invented the Internet, as his fans sometimes say. ;-) Mosaic was cool, but the development of the Internet itself may have been more important than the HTTP format, and it has been an American enterprise, too.

    I personally don't believe that we are heading towards a disaster because of the reasons you mentioned.

    You're most likely correct that the funding of real science from defence in the USA has decreased. Well, the US defence was defending the country against a rather sophisticated Soviet bloc that was attempting to have more advanced science than the USA. Not quite succesfully, but the Soviets tried. ;-) On the other hand, the enemies today are much less scientifically skilled today (I mean the terrorists, or even Saddam Hussein who was obviously very weak, as we see today). This change of the enemy also reduces the justification for cutting-edge research for science.

    On the other hand, I have no data that show that science in HP, IBM and so forth is going to zero. Why do you think so? Many quantum computing guys are still working for IBM, for example. Right, it also seems to me that condensed matter physics is being superseded, to some extent, by biophysics and biology, and it is funded privately a big deal.

    The good US science always depended on foreign students (and brains). Recall the German gifts to the US science after the 2nd war. The visas are truly annoying - they stopped me (and probably many other people) for 5 months or so and prevented many others from entering the USA, but we should not pretend that it became impossible to get here.


  3. Some stuff that may be of interest:

    Article 1Article 2 Article 3 This last is probably the best.


  4. Lubos, Arun

    At times I wonder how much of the "decline" in science and technology in America is just perception or propaganda, and how much of it is factual.

    There was an article titled "supply without demand" at which discussed issues of this sort.

    From a strictly economic perspective, a huge flood of science and/or engineering degrees flooding the labor market acts as a way of depressing overall wages in a cynical way. If there's a large number of unemployed science and engineering folks all looking for work, employers can "cherry pick" folks who will get the job done and not ask too many hard questions nor make too many demands on the employer.

    If kids hear stories about dismal job opportunities in science and engineering, it would not be surprising to see declining enrollments in science and engineering majors. The most popular degrees at many American universities seem to be ones related to medicine, law, and perhaps business. Though these days I hear stories about MBA degrees being almost next to useless, since so many people have one with business schools pumping out zillions of new ones each year.

    With so many private sector companies run by sales and/or finance folks, they seem to only see science, engineering and technical folks as a line item "cost" on their financial books and not as an "asset". Sometimes they think it's easier just to hire some consultants to do the engineering/technical work, instead of hiring somebody on staff. Perhaps there's a lot of truth to the notion of "Money talks, Bullshit walks" in the private sector of the real world. A company can only function if its liquid cash assets don't go below zero, without becoming insolvent. If the company's cash assets get close to zero, they also get cut off from getting any credit in the form of bank loans or access to the credit/bond markets. There's no use in banks lending money to a person or company that is close to bankruptcy.

    Issues like outsourcing white collar jobs overseas to places like India, Russia, China, Eastern Europe, etc ... compound the problem further for folks in places like America, Western Europe, and Japan. Though arguably in some places like the former East Germany, it seems to be structural problems like the government attempting to impose West German wages and labor regulations. Private companies found it easier and sometimes cheaper to set up shop in Poland or Bohemia instead of dealing with the arduous regulations in Brandenburg, Mecklenburg, Saxony, or Thüringen. Though arguably once Poland, Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, etc ... start to be as "expensive" as Western Europe, companies will just move somewhere else such as Russia, Ukraine, Königsberg/Kaliningrad, etc ... Japan also had similar arduous regulations and some social customs which also made labor expensive. Many Japanese firms set up shop in China these days to get around the expensive labor in Japan. American labor regulations seem to be less arduous, where it's relatively easy to fire people. For many years, American companies set up shop in Mexico to get around the expensive American labor. These days many American firms set up shop in China or India instead. General Electric set up huge outsourcing operations in India in the early 1990's before anybody else was really doing it.

    As long as private sector companies see science, engineering, and technical people as a huge "cost" to their financial statements, there isn't much anybody can do about increasing interest in science and engineering for college kids. If things get to a point where many "white collar" jobs don't pay much better than "blue collar" jobs, then people may start to question whether a university education is a worthwhile investment. Some will argue this is Ricardo's "Iron Law of Wages" in action, where wages tend to stabilize at or around subsistence level.

  5. Interesting points made by you. Overall I agree with your comments vis-avis Europe and US. Some "perturbative" comments:

    * I agree the immense contribution of the Jews in US; Euprope's loss was US's gain! The long tradition of respect for learning among the Jews is certainly the cause for their contribution in modern times. But take them, and recent immigrants (especially from China and India) away, and the US looks much less dominant. Significant number of US Nobel Prize winners were immigrants. Unlike in the 60s or 70s, many accomplished foreign US univ graduates are not staying in the US.

    * The dominance in string theory, pure mathematics (or Nobel prizes) does not translate into economic might, I think. Soviet Union is an example. Taiwan is not particularly noted for pure research, but it is pretty advanced in high technology (and not just consumer electronics). When translated into a bigger country (like, say, China) it can be significant.

    * Speaking of major prizes, what about the Fields Medals? France has been pretty dominant. And note that the 2002 Nevanlina Prize this went to an immigrant from India, and the recent discovery of a determinisitic polynomial time algorithm for testing primality, considered the biggest news in CS in a decade, was done by students and prof in India who had no education overseas.

    But, yes, the US is going to continue to be a dominant player, but not as much as it was post WWII, when it had 60% of world's GDP (vs. 22% now and decreasing).