The 2020 Nobel Prizes in Physiology/Medicine and in Physics have been awarded, and once again, scientists trained or working in the United States are receiving the majority of the awards.
The Prize in Physiology or Medicine
On Monday, The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet jointly awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to three scientists who identified and characterized the Hepatitis C virus that causes many cases of hepatitis and liver disease. The winners were:
- Harvey J. Alter, who received his medical degree at the University of Rochester Medical School, and also trained in internal medicine at Strong Memorial Hospital and at the University Hospitals of Seattle. In 1961, he joined the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a clinical associate. He was then at Georgetown University for several years before returning to NIH in 1969 to join the Clinical Center’s Department of Transfusion Medicine as a senior investigator. According to NIH, he is one of only 23 scientists to be appointed as an NIH Distinguished Investigator, a status he achieved in 2008.
- Michael Houghton, a native of the United Kingdom, received his PhD in 1977 from King’s College London. He joined G. D. Searle & Company before working at the Chiron Corporation, Emeryville, California in 1982. He is currently a Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology and the Li Ka Shing Professor of Virology at the University of Alberta where he also directs the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute.
- Charles M. Rice received his PhD in 1981 from the California Institute of Technology, where he also was a postdoctoral fellow between 1981-1985. He established his research group at Washington University School of Medicine, in St Louis in 1986 and was appointed a full Professor there in 1995. Since 2001 he has been Professor at the Rockefeller University, New York. For almost two decades, he served as the Scientific and Executive Director, Center for the Study of Hepatitis C at Rockefeller University.
According to the official announcement of their selection, the trio is credited with seminal discoveries that led to better understanding and treatment of blood-borne hepatitis. “Prior to their work, the discovery of the Hepatitis A and B viruses had been critical steps forward, but the majority of blood-borne hepatitis cases remained unexplained. The discovery of Hepatitis C virus revealed the cause of the remaining cases of chronic hepatitis and made possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives.”
The Prize in Physics
The Nobel in physics was awarded Tuesday to three investigators for their insights into black holes and the nature of the universe. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences selected Roger Penrose for half the award “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.” The other half was awarded jointly to Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy.”
- Roger Penrose attended University College School and University College, London, where he graduated with a degree in mathematics. Penrose earned his Ph.D. at St John’s College, Cambridge in 1958. He is Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, and an emeritus fellow of Wadham College, Oxford.
- Reinhard Genzel Reinhard Genzel received his Ph.D. from the University of Bonn (FRG) in 1978. He came to the University of California, Berkeley as a Miller Fellow in 1980 and joined the Physics Department as an Associate Professor in 1981. In 1986 he became Director at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Munich (FRG) where he is also Honorary Professor at the Ludwig-Maximilian University. In 1999 he returned to Berkeley as a part-time Professor.
- Andrea Ghez earned her B.S. from MIT and her Ph.D from the California Institute of Technology in 1992. She is currently Professor of Physics & Astronomy at UCLA, were she holds the Lauren B. Leichtman & Arthur E. Levine Chair in Astrophysics. Ghez is the Founder and Director of UCLA’s Galactic Center Group.
The Influence of American Scientists and Universities
In his 1895 will, Alfred Nobel, the Swedish polymath and inventor of dynamite, bequeathed the majority of his estate to create five prizes (physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace), recognizing “those, who during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.” The first awards were conferred in 1901. A sixth award, not technically a Nobel, was established in 1968; it’s officially designated as the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.
In 2020, the Nobel Foundation’s Board of Directors increased the Nobel Prize amount to 10 million kroner (equal to about $1.1 million) per prize category. That’s an increase of one million kroner per category compared to prior years.
By the end of this week, Nobel Prizes will be awarded in all five of the original fields, and if the past is any indicator, American scholars will lead the list.
Between 1901 and 2020, over 600 awards have been awarded to more than 900 individuals. The awards are international, so there’s always interest in the academic affiliations of the Nobelists because those associations help shed light on which academic institutions have cultivated the most groundbreaking discoveries.
A Wikipedia entry on the topic of which universities had the most individual laureate affiliations through 2018 showed that eight of the top 10 were U.S. institutions (in order: Harvard, Cambridge, Berkeley, Chicago, MIT, Columbia, Stanford, CIT, Oxford, and Princeton).
A slightly different list emerges from a ranking of universities “producing” the most Nobelists. This methodology weighted the number of prizewinners for each category and the number of institutions affiliated with each award winner. Nine of the ten institutions were located in the U.S.: Princeton, Stanford, U. Chicago, Columbia, MIT, U. California (Berkeley), Howard Hughes Institute, Harvard, University California (Santa Barbara), Technion – Israel Institute of Technology
The 2020 awards continue to reveal the leadership of U.S. universities in the educational background and employment settings of the prize winners. Based on the the biographies of the Nobel Laureates, which can be found here, I tallied both the current affiliations and the universities from which recipients received their advanced degrees (typically, a Ph.D.) for the Nobel winners across the past six years (2015-2020).
- Between 2015 and 2020, the prize in physics was awarded to 17 individuals. Eleven recipients were affiliated with an American university or research lab at the time of the award.
- Fifteen individuals were awarded the Nobel in physiology or medicine between 2015 and 2020. Nine of the fifteen were affiliated with American institutions when they won the award, and nine had earned their postgraduate degrees at American institutions.
Why, other than national pride, should the average American care about the preeminence of our universities in the history of the Nobel prizes? To start with, the scientists that have been recognized have changed our lives. Their discoveries, formed and nurtured at our best universities. have made us safer, healthier, and more prosperous. Indeed, they’ve done so for the entire world.
But beyond that, recognition of world-class intellectual work reaffirms the importance of science, which in our current political climate, needs all the support it can garner. Anti-intellectualism, the denigration of expertise, and the celebration of fads and foolishness are ascendent in America, sadly often championed by our current President. Nonetheless, scientific facts end up being correct, whether Donald Trump or anyone else believes them or not. And much to our lasting benefit and well-being, the research excellence of American universities is also being maintained, despite the winds of ignorance that would try to blow it away.