back to top

The Nobel Prizes Reveal Britain's Scientific "Brain Gain"

Bloody scientists, coming over here, winning Nobel Prizes.

Posted on

This week a British scientist, Richard Henderson of the University of Cambridge, was one of the winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Nobel Committee

He shared it with two other men: Joachim Frank, a German working at Columbia University in the US, and Jacques Dubochet, a Swiss scientist at the University of Lausanne.

The way that prize was shared is in keeping with how the Nobels have changed over the years, and the story that tells about modern science.

It's a story of increasing collaboration among scientists.

Tom Phillips / BuzzFeed

A Nobel Prize in the sciences (physics, physiology/medicine, and chemistry) can, according to the rules, be divided between up to three people. So the most people who can win a scientific Nobel Prize in any given year is nine.

Until 1988 – 90 years after the first prizes were given – that had never happened. In the 29 years since, it has happened a further seven times. There is a clear trend towards the awards being divided among a larger group of people.

In fact, that's one reason the Nobels are coming in for criticism. The physics Nobel this year was won by scientists behind LIGO, the instrument which detected gravitational waves for the first time. But more than a thousand people worked on the LIGO research.

That's why Professor Lord Martin Rees told the Science Media Centre that "LIGO's success was owed to literally hundreds of dedicated scientists and engineers", and that refusing to award them to larger groups gives "a misleading and unfair impression of how a lot of science is actually done".

Even more dramatically, it is a story of increasing collaboration between institutions

Tom Phillips / BuzzFeed

…and between countries.

Tom Phillips / BuzzFeed

In the first half of the 20th century, most Nobels were awarded to people working in a single country – not surprisingly, since so many of them were awarded to single individuals.

But as the century progressed, more and more were split between scientists working in two different countries – or even, as in the case of Henderson, Dubochet, and Frank, in three. That had never happened before 1970. It's happened nine times since.

The average number of recipients has gone up in all three sciences, but it's especially notable in chemistry.

Traditionally, British universities have done very well out of the international movement of scientists.

Tom Phillips / BuzzFeed

Most people who've won a Nobel Prize in British universities have been British-born. But nearly a third have come from overseas – Australia, Germany, and India have been our biggest contributors.

The prestige of British universities is a major boost to the British economy. Despite Britain only spending about 0.44% of its GDP on research – barely half the average of its peers – it publishes far more research papers than would be expected for a country its size, in large part because of the prestige of its universities. This is great because a 2014 government report found that this scientific research is a major driver of economic growth.

And this British "brain gain" – the number of overseas scientists who win Nobels while they're here – has gone up in recent years.

Tom Phillips / BuzzFeed

It was always FAIRLY high, because British universities have always had a lot of overseas students, especially from Commonwealth countries. But it's become more common since the second world war.

Of course, British-born scientists have also won Nobels while working overseas.

Tom Phillips / BuzzFeed

Again, the large majority of British-born Nobel laureates have won their Nobels while working in the UK. But a large number of them have also gone to the US.

This British brain drain – the number of British-born scientists who were working overseas when they won their Nobels – has gone up even more.

Tom Phillips / BuzzFeed

Until the 1950s, every single British-born Nobel Prize winner was working in a British university. But since the turn of the millennium, 9 out of a total of 17 British-born winners have been working in the US. Notably, in 2016, five British-born men won prizes while working in American universities.

It should also be pointed out that Nobel winners are almost exclusively men. That's especially true in physics, which has seen just two female winners.

Tom Phillips / BuzzFeed

Female winners are more common now than 100 years ago, but they're still vastly outnumbered by men.

That has led to accusations of institutional bias, with one former physics laureate, Brian Schmidt, telling the Times Literary Supplement "it will devalue them a lot” if there are not more female winners in the near future.

"To some extent, Nobel prizes reflect the lack of diversity in the past, but the [percentage] of female winners has not improved as much as I would expect," he said, adding that he would be "deeply disappointed" if the numbers don't go up soon.

Tom Chivers is a science writer for BuzzFeed and is based in London.

Contact Tom Chivers at tom.chivers@buzzfeed.com.

Tom Phillips is the UK editorial director for BuzzFeed and is based in London.

Contact Tom Phillips at tom.phillips@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.