Nobel prizes as a scientometric measure of revolutionary science
four 'in the press' editorials from Medical Hypotheses
by Bruce G Charlton.
PDF files of these articles are available on request from brucedot charltonat ncldot acdotuk
NOTE - I apologize for the bad formatting of the Tables
- but they can still be read, albeit with some effort...
Why there should be more science Nobel Prizes –
and why proportionate credit should be awarded to institutions
Charlton BG. Medical Hypotheses 2007; 68: 471-3 – doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2006.11.003
The four science Nobel prizes (physics, chemistry, medicine/ physiology and economics) have performed extremely well as a method of recognizing the highest level of achievement. The prizes exist primarily to honour individuals but also have a very important function in science generally. In particular, the institutions and nations which have educated, nurtured or supported many laureates can be identified as elite in world science. However, the limited range of subjects and a maximum of 12 laureates per year means that many major scientific achievements remain un-recognized; and relatively few universities can gather sufficient Nobel-credits to enable a precise estimate of their different level of quality. I advocate that the Nobel committee should expand the number of Nobel laureates and Prize categories as a service to world science. 1. There is a large surplus of very high quality prize candidates deserving of recognition. 2. There has been a vast expansion of research with a proliferation of major sub-disciplines in the existing categories. 3. Especially, the massive growth of the bio-medical sciences has created a shortage of Nobel recognition in this area. 4. Whole new fields of major science have emerged. I therefore suggest that the maximum of three laureates per year in the categories of physics, chemistry and economics should always be awarded, even when these prizes are for diverse and un-related achievements; that the number of laureates in the ‘biology’ category of physiology or medicine should be increased to six or preferably nine per year; and two new Prize categories should be introduced to recognize achievements in mathematics and computing science. Together, these measures would increase the science laureates from a maximum of 12 to a minimum of 24, and increase their coverage. The Nobel Prize committee should also officially allocate proportionate credit to institutions for each laureate - both in retrospect for past prizes, and in the future.
The Nobel prizes are more than 100 years old. They exist primarily to honour individuals, but the prizes also have a very important function in science generally, in particular providing a retrospective research quality evaluation for institutions and nations.
The four science Nobel prizes (physics, chemistry, medicine/ physiology, and since 1968 economics) have performed extremely well as a method of recognizing the highest level of achievement. (The literature and peace prizes, lacking objective and internationally-valid criteria for evaluation, have clearly failed to achieve the validity of the science prizes.) Although originally awarded to individuals, the science prizes are now awarded a maximum of once a year to a maximum of three laureates, which makes a maximum total of only 12 laureates annually. However this maximum number of laureates is not often reached due to the usual practice of awarding each year’s prize for achievements related to a single ‘theme’ of research – for which only one or two people may be responsible.
The science prizes serve not only to honour individuals retrospectively, but have also been used to evaluate the quality of universities and other research institutions by crediting the places that have been associated with the most ‘revolutionary’ science breakthroughs. For example, the Shanghai Jiao Tong academic rankings (http://ed.sjtu.edu.cn/rank/2006) uses 'alumni' data of the university where Nobel Laureates studied, and also the institution where laureates were working at the time of award. This generates a mostly-US world elite of universities containing the likes of Harvard, Chicago, Princeton, Colombia, MIT, Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley and Cambridge (UK).
But the maximum of only 12 science prizes per year means that many major scientific achievements remain un-recognized. Outside of the research super-elite, few universities can gather sufficient Nobel-credits to enable a precise estimate of their different level of quality. Such small numbers create considerable statistical noise, over-valuing a ‘lucky’ institution and undervaluing other places where Nobel-quality work was nurtured but un-rewarded.
I suggest that the massive expansion and specialization of world science since the foundation of the Nobel Prizes implies that the number of Nobel prizes should be at-least doubled. It would also be a very useful service to science if the prize committee would – in future and retrospectively – proportionately allocate an official share of institutional credit for each person’s prize.
Reasons why more Nobel prizes are justified
- While it is understandable that the Nobel Committee and existing laureates would not want to 'inflate' the value of the award, given the number of unrewarded major scientists there seems to be no shortage of very high quality candidates for Nobels. So there should be no problem of increasing numbers reducing the quality of laureates.
- The past century since the first Nobel Prize in 1901 has seen a vast, many-fold expansion of scientific research. Furthermore, there has been a continual process of specialization of research, as well as the generation of new hybrid categories (such as bio-chemistry). So, the meaning of a Nobel has changed. It is now appropriate that within a general category, several specialist prizes be awarded each year.
- The relative importance of sciences have changed and for the several decades the bio-medical sciences have dominated in terms of size and achievements. This has created a shortage of Nobel recognition in the area of physiology and medicine. For example, many major therapeutic advances in drug discovery and innovative procedures have not been recognized by Nobel prizes.
- New fields of science have merged and grown to maturity. Economics was recognized by a new Nobel Prize in 1968, but mathematics and computing science also seem worthy of new prizes. (The mathematic Fields Medal of the Royal Society only goes to candidates aged less than 40.)
- An increase in the numbers of Nobel prizes would have great advantages for recognizing the scientific research institutions which have educated, nurtured and supported them. When there are so few prizes each individual prize carries a disproportionate weight in terms of institutional associations. Only a handful of universities have gathered enough prizes over sufficient years (eg. Harvard, Princeton, Cambridge, Chicago, MIT and CalTech) to eliminate chance effects. More prizes would mean that the contribution of institutions would be more precisely measurable, a wider range of scientific achievement would be rewarded, and also more up to date measures would become useable.
- Related to this, it would be a great service to science if prizes were awarded not just to an individual, but if the official credit for each prize was also proportionately allocated between any institutions that were considered significantly to have supported the achievement - this process could also be retrospective.
In conclusion, I would advocate a progressive expansion of the number of science Nobel prizes. The exact mechanism by which this would be achieved in not critical, but here are some suggestions.
- The maximum of three laureates per year in the physics, chemistry and economics categories should be awarded as a matter of routine; even when this means that prizes are being given for diverse and un-related achievements.
- The number of laureates in the ‘biology’ category of physiology or medicine should be increased to six or preferably nine.
- Consideration should be given to two new prizes to recognize achievements in mathematics and computing science.
A combination of these measures would ensure that the number of laureates per year would increase from the current maximum of 12 to a minimum of 21-24. The situation could be monitored to ensure that this change did not lead to any sign of incipient decline in quality of laureates, and consideration could be given to further expansion or adjustment of disciplinary categories in future.
While it is understandable and laudable that the Nobel committee should be cautious about the danger of devaluating the status of the award, in fact the real problem is exactly the opposite. By maintaining so few laureates when world science has expanded so much, there has been a deflationary extra-valuation of each award and an arbitrary element to the distribution of credit. As a service to world science, the Nobel Committee should seriously consider expanding the number of laureates to keep-up with the volume and quality of scientific activity.
Scientometric identification of elite ‘revolutionary science’ research institutions by analysis of trends in Nobel Prizes 1947-2006
Medical Hypotheses – do:10.1016/j.mehy.2006.12.006
Most research is ‘normal science’ using Thomas Kuhn’s term: checking, trial-and-error improvement and incremental extrapolation of already existing paradigms. By contrast, 'revolutionary science' changes the fundamental structures of science by making new theories, discoveries or technologies. Science Nobel prizes (in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology/Medicine and Economics) have the potential to be used as a new metric for measuring revolutionary science. Nobel laureates nations and research institutions were measured between 1947-2006 in 20 year segments. The minimum threshold for inclusion was 3 Nobel prizes. Credit was allocated to each laureate's institution and nation of residence at the time of award. Over 60 years, the USA has 19 institutions which won three-plus Nobel prizes in 20 years, the UK has 4, France has 2 and Sweden and USSR 1 each. Four US institutions won 3 or more prizes in all 20 year segments: Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and CalTech. The most successful institution in the past 20 years was MIT, with 11 prizes followed by Stanford (9), Columbia and Chicago (7). But the Western United States has recently become the world dominant region for revolutionary science, generating a new generation of elite public universities: University of Colorado at Boulder; University of Washington at Seattle; and the University of California institutions of Santa Barbara, Irvine, UCSF, and UCLA; also the Fred Hutchinson CRC in Seattle. Since 1986 the USA has 16 institutions which have won 3 plus prizes, but elsewhere in the world only the College de France has achieved this. In UK's Cambridge University, Cambridge MRC unit, Oxford and Imperial College have declined from 17 prizes in 1967-86 to only 3 since then. Harvard has also declined as a revolutionary science university from being the top Nobel-prize-winning institution for 40 years, to currently joint sixth position. Although Nobel science prizes are sporadically won by numerous nations and institutions, it seems that long term national strength in revolutionary science is mainly a result of sustaining and newly-generating multi-Nobel-winning research centres. At present these elite institutions are found almost exclusively in the USA. The USA is apparently the only nation with a scientific research system that nurtures revolutionary science on a large scale.
Most of scientific production can be categorized as ‘normal science’ using Thomas Kuhn’s term to describe research which constitutes the checking, trial-and-error improvement and incremental extrapolation of already existing paradigms . Normal science can be measured and analyzed using standard scientometric research outputs such as number and share of publications and citations . But a different method is need to detect and measure the much rarer, but potentially more-important, examples of paradigm-transforming Kuhnian ‘revolutionary science’ .
Revolutionary science changes the fundamental structures of a whole science (as achieved by Einstein, Newton or Darwin) or, more often, a significant sub-speciality of a major science . For example science can be transformed or re-directed by new theories, discoveries or major technologies. Revolutionary science is therefore the cutting-edge which allows each science to continue to grow in rapid bursts, and to become qualitatively more accurate and useful in its predictions [3,4].
The problem of discriminating between revolutionary and normal science has become more difficult since the advent of Big Science . Big Science comprises quasi-industrial forms of research organization, and arose initially in physics and chemistry but now characterizes biomedical research, which is currently the dominant world science. Big Science is almost inevitably a type of normal science (since it needs to be predictable) and tends to be ‘applied’ in its aims, and similar to industrial Research and Development in its methods [4,6]. Normal science now overwhelms revolutionary science in terms of quantity, so that revolutionary science has become almost invisible when research production is measured using standard scientometrics.
Science Nobel prizes have the potential to be used in detecting and measuring revolutionary science [3,7]. This may allow identification of those nations and institutions where revolutionary science has happened in the past, and help understand the conditions which could encourage revolutionary science in the future.
Nobel prizes as a measure of revolutionary science
The award of a Nobel prize in one of the four recognized sciences (Physics, Chemistry, Physiology/Medicine and Economics) seems to be the best current evidence of a significant achievement in revolutionary science. Although the small annual number of Nobel prize-winners (laureates) means that many significant achievements go unrecognized , nonetheless the perceived validity of these awards is high within the scientific community, and only a small proportion of awards are regarded as controversial or unjustified.
The number of science Nobel laureates in a nation and a research institution were measured between 1947 and 2006 in three 20 year segments of 1947-66, 1967-86 and 1987-2006 . A maximum of three people can receive each prize, so there are a minimum of four and a maximum of twelve laureates per year (since 1969, when the economics prize was first awarded. Up to 1968 there were a minimum of three and a maximum of nine laureates).
A very large number of nations and institutions have won a single Nobel prize, but my interest was in those places which had won multiple prizes as evidence that they provided an environment conducive to revolutionary science. I set the threshold at three Nobel prizes during a 20 year period as the minimum number of laureates which counts as a significant national or institutional contribution to revolutionary science. (However, in 1965 the prize for Physiology/ Medicine went to Jacob, Monod and Lwoff of the Pasteur Institute, Paris, France; for the same topic.)
Official statistics are only available on Nobel laureates institutional affiliation at the time they receive the prize . Clearly, this is not as valid a measure of revolutionary science as knowing laureates ' affiliations at the time prize-winning work was actually accomplished; however such information is not readily available. I therefore allocated credit to each laureate's institution and nation of residence at the time they received their award.
Table 1 – Number of Nobel laureates by Nation – ten year segments from 1947-2006. A minimum of three prizes in one time segment is required for inclusion.
Nation - 1947-66 - 1967-86 - 1987-2006
USA -50 - 88 - 126
UK - 20 - 25 - 9
Germany - 8 - 7 - 9
Switzerland - 3 - 7 - 7
Sweden - 3 - 7 - 1
Japan - 2 - 1 - 3
USSR/Russia - 7 - 2 - 2
France - 4 - 3 - 5
Table 2 - Number of United States Nobel laureates by Institution – twenty year segments from 1947-2006. A minimum of three prizes in one time segment is required for inclusion.
Institution - 1947-66 - 1967-86 - 1987-2006
Harvard - 9 - 13 - 5
Univ. California Berkeley - 7 - 3 - 4
Stanford - 4 - 5 - 9
Caltech - 4 - 4 - 5
Columbia - 4 - 1 - 7
Rockefeller Inst. & Univ. - 3 - 6 - 3
Chicago - 2 - 4 - 7
Princeton - 1 - 2 - 6
MIT - 1 - 5 - 11
Cornell - 1 - 4 - 2
UCLA - 1 - 0 - 3
Yale - 0 - 4 - 1
NIH - National Inst. Health - 0 - 4 - 0
Univ. Colorado, Boulder - 0 - 0 - 4
University of Washington - 0 - 0 - 3
Fred Hutchinson CRC, Seattle - 0 - 0 - 3
Univ. California, Santa Barbara - 0 - 0 - 3
UCSF (U Cal San Fransico) - 0 - 0 - 3
Univ. California, Irvine - 0 - 0 - 3
Table 3 - Number of Non-US Nobel laureates by Institution – twenty year segments from 1947-2006. A minimum of three prizes in one time segment is required for inclusion.
Institution - 1947-66 - 1967-86 - 1987-2006
Cambridge, UK - 3 - 7 - 2
MRC Cambridge, UK - 3 - 3 - 1
Oxford, UK - 3 - 3 - 0
Imperial Coll. London, UK - 0 - 4 - 0
Pasteur Inst, Paris, France - 3 - 0 - 0
College de France, Paris - 0 - 0 - 3
PN Lebedez Institute, Moscow, USSR - 5 - 0 - 0
Karolinska Inst., Sweden - 0 - 4 - 0
CERN (multi-national) - 0 - 3 - 1
By contrast with the general decline elsewhere in the world, the US system is increasingly successful in generating revolutionary science which leads to the award of a Nobel prize (Table 1). It can be seen that few countries have any research institutions which have earned three or more Nobel prizes over any of the defined 20 year time spans. Over 60 years, the USA has nineteen such institutions (Table 2), the UK has four, France has two, and Sweden and USSR one each (Table 3).
Table 2 shows that there are only four institutions which have won three or more Nobel prizes in all three 20 year periods, all from the USA - Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and CalTech. The most successful institution in the past 20 years was MIT, with 11 prizes followed by Stanford (9), Chicago and Columbia (7). But the Western United States has become the world dominant region for revolutionary science – with Stanford, Berkeley and CalTech now being amplified by a new generation of elite public universities: University of Colorado at Boulder, University of Washington at Seattle, University of California at Santa Barbara, UCSF (University of California at San Fransisco), University of California at Irvine, UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) - also the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center at Seattle.
In the past 20 years, the USA has sixteen institutions which have won three or more prizes, but elsewhere in the world (Table 3) only the College de France has achieved three Nobel prizes. Since 1986 the previously Nobel-successful UK research institutions (University of Cambridge, the MRC Molecular Biology Unit at Cambridge, University of Oxford and Imperial College, London) have declined from seventeen prizes 67-86 to only three.
The USA demonstrates dynamic changes in ranking over the 60 year period (Table 2). New institutions have risen to prominence in the Western states. From one prize each in 1947-66, MIT and Princeton have both overtaken Harvard to become first and fifth among Nobel prize-winners. Columbia declined in the middle period, but recovered strongly to reach equal-third in the rankings. The NIH and Yale have significantly declined during the most recent 20 years.
Harvard is particularly interesting. In terms of conventional scientometric research measures, Harvard is currently by-far the top ranking university in the world. For example, Harvard has double the number of citations as Johns Hopkins (which is second) and about 65 percent more publications than UCLA (which is second) during 2000-2004 . And Harvard has more elected Members of the US National Academy of Sciences than any other university (167 – Harvard; 129 – Berkeley; 128 – Stanford; 100 – MIT; 72 – Princeton; 71 – Cal Tech ). By a large margin, Harvard also tops the respected Shanghai Jiao Tong University world rankings .
Yet there are signs of a decline in revolutionary science at Harvard. From 47-86 Harvard was the top Nobel-prize-winning institution, but for the past 20 years it has been overtaken in prize numbers by MIT (11), Stanford (9), Columbia (7), Chicago (7) and Princeton (6) – all of which are considerably smaller. The implication may be that Harvard is evolving towards being a ‘normal science’ university – albeit unusually large and successful.
If this statistic of Nobel prizes is a valid measure of revolutionary science, then the main conclusion is that the USA has emerged to become the only nation that supports revolutionary science on a large scale. It seems that long-term strength in revolutionary science is mainly a product of a nation possessing numerous elite research institutions where revolutionary science thrives. A nation lacking such institutions will win relatively few Nobel prizes, and prizes will be spread around many institutions (eg. in Germany, the various Max Planck research institutions sometimes win a single Nobel prize, but no specific institute has ever won two prizes in 20 years).
Over the past 60 years, the UK has declined from being the only non-US focus of revolutionary science, to joining Switzerland and Germany (with nine prizes) as the kind of place where normal science has been thriving but revolutionary science is thinly-distributed and sporadic in occurrence. Presumably, recent US improvement has therefore been driven mainly by within-nation competition.
In contrast to the picture of long term decline in Nobel-prize-winning revolutionary science; UK and European scientific production (also that of Chinese science) is probably catching up with the USA in terms of scientometric measures such as numbers of publications and citations [12,13]. This difference between national performance in normal and revolutionary science seems to suggest that the research systems of revolutionary science and normal science are evolving towards separation . Clearly, growth of the two types of science does not always go-together.
In future, it would probably be beneficial if this increasing separation between revolutionary and normal science were made explicit, with institutional self-definition and specialization, and differentiated funding streams and evaluation criteria for the small number of elite revolutionary science institutions . Part of this process would be the development of a distinctive set of scientometric measures for revolutionary science. Counting Nobel laureates could be a first step in this direction.
Acknowledgement: thanks are due to Peter Andras, Andrew Oswald and Malcolm Young for comments and advice.
1. Kuhn TS. The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: Chicago Univesrity Press, 1970.
2. Garfield E. Essays of an information scientist. Philadelphia: ISI Press, 1977.
3. Charlton BG, Andras P. Evaluating universities using simple scientometric research output metrics: total citation counts per university for a retrospective seven year rolling sample. Minerva, in the press.
4. Charlton BG, Andras P. The future of 'pure' medical science: the need for a new specialist professional research system. Medical Hypotheses 2005; 65: 419-25
5. Price DJ de Solla. Little Science, Big Science and beyond. New York: Columbia Univesrity Press, 1986.
6. Ziman J. Real science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
7. Charlton BG. Why there should be more science Nobel prizes and laureates - And why proportionate credit should be awarded to institutions. Medical Hypotheses, in the press.
8. Nobel Foundation. Nobel prizes. http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes. Accessed: 7 December 2006.
9. Charlton B, Andras P. Oxford University's research performance (four articles published in Oxford Magazine during 2006). www.hedweb.com/bgcharlton/oxmagarts. Accessed 14 December 2006.
10. National Academy of Sciences. Members. www.nasonline.org/site/Dir?sid=1011&view=basic&pg=srch. Accessed 30 November 2006.
11. Shanghai Jiao Tong University: Institute of Higher Education. Academic Ranking of World Universities 2006. http://ed.sjtu.edu.cn/ranking. Accessed 14 December 2006.
12. Shelton, RD, Holdridge, GM. The EU-US race for leadership of science and technology: Qualitative and quantitative indicators. Scientometrics 2004; 60: 353-363.
13. Ping Z, Leydesdorff L The emergence of China as a leading nation in science, Research Policy 2006 35: 83-104.
Which are the best nations and institutions for revolutionary science 1987-2006? Analysis using a combined metric of Nobel prizes, Fields medals, Lasker awards and Turing awards (NFLT metric).
Medical Hypotheses – doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2006.12.007
I have previously suggested that Nobel prizes can be used as a scientometric measurement of ‘revolutionary science’; and that for this purpose it would be better if more Nobel prizes were awarded, especially in three new subjects of mathematics, medicine and computing science which have become major sciences over recent decades. In the following analysis of the last twenty years from 1987-2006, I use three prestigious prizes in mathematics (Fields medal), medicine (Lasker award for Clinical Medical Research) and computing science (A.M. Turing award) which are plausible surrogates for Nobel prizes. The combined Nobel-Fields-Lasker-Turing (NFLT) metric is strongly dominated by the USA. However the distribution implies that revolutionary science may be somewhat more broadly distributed than the pure Nobel metric suggests. The UK and France seem to be significant nations in some types of revolutionary science (although the UK has declined substantially as a centre of revolutionary science); and Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Russia, Denmark and Norway also feature. The top world institutions for revolutionary science according to NFLT are MIT, Stanford and Princeton - all in the USA - and the USA has nineteen institutions with at least three prize-winners. Second is France, with three institutions having three or more winners; the UK and Norway have one each. The NFLT metric confirms previous observations that many public universities in the Western USA have now become a major focus of revolutionary science; and that Harvard has declined from its previous status as the top world centre of revolutionary science to about seventh-place. This analysis confirms the potential value of increasing the number of Nobel prizes as a means of identifying and monitoring centres of excellence in revolutionary science.
Revolutionary science is a term coined by Thomas Kuhn in his book The structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago University Press, 1970) to describe research which changes the fundamental structures of science by making new theories, discoveries or technologies (ie. new ‘paradigms’). But most research is ‘normal science’, comprising checking, trial-and-error improvement and the more gradual and incremental extrapolation of already-existing paradigms.
I have previously suggested that Nobel prizes can be used as a scientometric measurement of ‘revolutionary science’; and that for this purpose it would be better if more Nobel prizes were awarded, especially in three new subjects of mathematics, medicine and computing science which have become major sciences over recent decades [1, 2, 3]. My three disciplinary suggestions for Nobel expansion are here simply assumed to be valid, and in the following analysis of the last twenty years from 1987-2006, I have used three prestigious prizes in mathematics (Fields Medal) , medicine (Lasker Award for Clinical Medical research) and computing science (A.M. Turing award) which are plausible surrogates for Nobel prizes.
The choice of the Fields medal  as a near-Nobel equivalent was also made by the well-respected Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings of the world’s best universities . It is a highly prestigious prize awarded every four years (in batches of up to four winners – making the prize approximately annual) by the International Mathematical Union to a mathematician aged less than forty.
The approximately annual Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research  recognizes from one to three scientists whose work pioneers a major improvement in clinical management or treatment. Unlike the Lasker award for Basic Medical Research, which frequently predicts a Nobel prize in Physiology/ Medicine, the Clinical Medical Research (CMR) award does not frequently overlap with the Nobel prize. Only one person in the last twenty years (
The A.M. Turing Award is given annually to one or two individuals by the Association for Computing Machinery for contributions of lasting and major importance to the computer field .
Having identified the winners of Fields, Lasker and Turing prizes for the past twenty years; I discovered their national and institutional affiliation at the time the prize was awarded - either from the official web pages of the prize-awarding institutions, or by wider internet searching for references to these awards (eg Wikipedia entries, press releases, references to the prizes in other publications etc.). Each prize-winner was therefore credited to a single nation and institution. The data from Fields, Lasker and Turing winners were then pooled with the data from Nobel prize-winners and tabulated.
Since the aim of this study was to identify the strongest nations and institutions in revolutionary science, there was a minimum threshold of three Nobel-Fields-Lasker-Turing winners before a nation or institution was included in the tables.
Table 1 – Number of Nobel-Fields-Lasker-Turing winners by nation 1987-2006. A minimum of three winners is required for inclusion.
Nation - Nobel prizes - Other awards - Total
USA - 126 - 45 - 171
UK - 9 - 10 - 19
France - 5 - 7 - 12
Germany - 9 - 0 - 9
Switzerland - 7 - 0 - 7
Japan - 3 - 1 - 4
Russia - 2 - 1 - 3
Denmark - 1 - 2 - 3
Norway - 1 - 2 - 3
Table 2 – Number of Nobel-Fields-Lasker-Turing winners by institution 1987-2006. A minimum of three winners is required for inclusion. IHES = Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques.
US Institution - Nobel prizes - Other awards - Total
- MIT - 11 - 2 - 13
- Stanford - 9 - 2 - 11
- Princeton - 6 - 4 - 10
- Chicago - 7 - 1 - 8
- Univ. California Berkeley - 4 - 3 - 7
- Columbia - 7 - 0 - 7
- Harvard - 5 - 1 - 6
- Caltech - 5 - 0 - 5
- UCSF (Univ. Calif. San Fransico) - 3 - 2 - 5
- Cornell - 2 - 2 - 4
- Rockefeller Inst. & Univ. - 3 - 1 - 4
- UCLA - 3 - 1 - 4
- Univ. Colorado, Boulder - 4 - 0 - 4
- Univ. Pennsylvania - 2 - 2 - 4
- University of Washington - 3 - 1 - 4
- NIH - National Inst. Health - 0 - 3 - 3
- Fred Hutchinson
CRC, Seattle - 3 - 0 - 3
- Univ. California, Santa Barbara - 3 - 0 - 3
- Univ. California, Irvine - 3 - 0 - 3
Univ. Cambridge, UK - 2 - 3 - 5
College de France, Paris - 3 - 0 - 3
University of Paris-Sud - 0 - 3 - 3
IHES*, Paris, France - 0 - 3 - 3
University Oslo, Norway - 1 - 2 - 3
The national Nobel-Fields-Lasker-Turing (NFLT) metric (Table 1) is strongly dominated by the USA, confirming the pattern demonstrated by the previous analysis of Nobel prizes . But inclusion of Fields-Lasker-Turing winners implies that revolutionary science may be more broadly distributed than the pure Nobel metric suggests. The UK and France, in particular, seem to be more significant nations in revolutionary science than suggested by Nobels alone; and other nations are identified as significant which are missed by the purely Nobel prize analysis: Russia, Denmark and Norway.
The top world revolutionary science institutions identified by the NFLT metric (Table 2) are MIT, Stanford and Princeton in the USA; and the USA has nineteen institutions with at least three prize-winners. Harvard stays in seventh place for the combined Nobel-Fields-Lasker-Turing metric, which is the same as its Nobel prize-winning rank, tending to confirm my previous observation  that Harvard has indeed declined as a centre of revolutionary science – although it remains dominant in ‘normal science’ as measured by metrics such as numbers of publications and citations.
In second place to the USA as a home of revolutionary science institutions is France, which has three institutions having three or more Nobel-Fields-Lasker-Turing winners. This particularly reflects French strength in mathematical research, with six Fields medallists in the past 20 years. University of Cambridge (UK) and University of Oslo (Norway) also emerge as significant.
In general, this analysis demonstrates the potential value of increasing the number of Nobel prizes , since otherwise the significant strength of France - and its three elite institutions - would be missed. The analysis also confirms the results of the pure-Nobel metric in suggesting that a high level of national performance in revolutionary science is probably a consequence of having elite institutions that win three or more prizes in a twenty year period.
Measured by the NFLT metric; outside of the USA (with its nineteen institutions of revolutionary science), only France seems to have succeeded in supporting more than one centre of revolutionary science over the past 20 years. Up until the mid-nineteen eighties, the UK was a long-term clear second to the USA in Nobel prizes ; but from 1987-2006 three of its major prize-winning institutions (ie. the University of Oxford, the Cambridge Molecular Biology MRC Unit, and Imperial College London) have declined as centres of revolutionary science, and now only the University of Cambridge achieves the three-winner NFLT threshold.
But the most significant result of this analysis is to demonstrate and confirm the massive US domination of revolutionary science [1,3], and the lack of any significant national competition for this status except in mathematics (France has six Fields medals to the USA’s eight). This contrasts with the general picture of European, East Asian and Chinese science ‘catching-up’ with the USA in terms of ‘normal science’ production (as measured by numbers of publications and citations [3,8]).
Looking into the long term, the lack of international competition in revolutionary science is somewhat worrying, since it means that world scientific progress may increasingly depend upon the US research system. In the US it is probably within-nation research competition between rival institutions that has so far maintained striving and standards in revolutionary science. But if US universities began to compete on the basis of ‘normal science’ instead of revolutionary science – as seems to have happened in the less-diverse, less competitive and more risk-averse Anglo-European research systems  - then we might expect to see a decline equivalent to that which has occurred over recent decades in mainland Europe and the UK .
The first signs of decline might be seen in previously-successful revolutionary science institutions which, like Harvard or Cambridge (UK), win progressively-fewer major research prizes  while maintaining a very high output of highly cited publications [1,10]. A more advanced state of decline might be harder to detect, since there would (presumably) continue to be Nobel-, Fields-, Lasker- and Turing-winners even in the absence of actual revolutionary science.
However, at present, the situation 1987-2006 looks healthy and competitive for revolutionary science in the USA, particularly in the elite of MIT, Stanford and Princeton and the recently-emerging Western US institutions  exemplified by UCSF with its three Nobels and two Lasker awards (Table 2).
Significance of the NFLT metric
The Nobel-Fields-Lasker-Turing metric only measures the tip of an iceberg of revolutionary science, and my assumption is that each successful example of revolutionary science which has led to a prize, medal or award must (on general theoretical principles ) have been supported by a very much larger and more complex system of revolutionary science comprising numerous people and institutions.
So, the NFLT metric will intrinsically register many ‘false negatives’ and systematically under-estimates the scale of revolutionary science. Despite this, the NFLT metric seems to have value, since these prizes apparently have a low false positive rate: impressionistically and anecdotally, the great majority of winners seem thoroughly to ‘deserve’ to win for their research, which has indeed been revolutionary in the sense of changing the direction of science.
It seems unlikely that scientists are frequently, primarily and specifically motivated to do high quality revolutionary science by the prospect of winning a Nobel prize or one of the other high medals and awards – although many would no doubt day-dream about the possibility. Indeed, there is vast variability in the personality types of scientists and their motivations. Rather, Nobels and the like can be seen as providing an after-the-fact identification of some of the clearest and best-validated examples of revolutionary science.
The NFLT metric can therefore be seen as analogous to a ‘top-down’ macroeconomic quantitative variable, such as national taxes and interest rates. Such a variable may have value for monitoring, evaluation and policy; but does not necessarily have a close relationship to individual motivations and behaviors . The NFLT metric is suggestive, but its validity needs to be established by further empirical studies.
Acknowledgement: thanks to Jonathan Rees and Peter Andras for helpful comments.
1. Charlton BG, Andras P. Evaluating universities using simple scientometric research output metrics: total citation counts per university for a retrospective seven year rolling sample. Minerva, in the press.
2. Charlton BG. Why there should be more science Nobel prizes and laureates - And why proportionate credit should be awarded to institutions. Medical Hypotheses, in the press.
3. Charlton BG. Scientometric identification of elite ‘revolutionary science’ research institutions by analysis of trends in Nobel Prizes 1947-2006. Medical Hypotheses, in the press.
4. International Mathematical Union. Fields Medal. www.mathunion.org/Prizes/Fields Accessed 19 December 2006.
5. Shanghai Jiao Tong University: Institute of Higher Education. Academic Ranking of World Universities 2006. http://ed.sjtu.edu.cn/ranking. Accessed 14 December 2006.
6. Lasker Foundation. Former winners – Clinical Medical research. www.laskerfoundation.org/awards/all_clinical Accessed 19 December 2006.
7. Association for Computing Machinery. A. M. Turing Award. http://awards.acm.org/homepage.cfm?srt=all&awd=140. Accessed 19 December 2006.
8. Shelton, RD, Holdridge, GM. The EU-US race for leadership of science and technology: Qualitative and quantitative indicators. Scientometrics 2004; 60: 353-363.
9. Andras P, Charlton BG. European science must embrace modernization (Correspondence). Nature. 2004; 429: 699.
10. Charlton B, Andras P. Oxford University's research performance (four articles published in Oxford Magazine during 2006). www.hedweb.com/bgcharlton/oxmagarts. Accessed 14 December 2006.
11. Charlton B, Andras P. The modernization imperative. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2003.
Bruce G Charlton MD
Editor in Chief - Medical Hypotheses
Editorial – Medical Hypotheses - in the press
Measuring revolutionary biomedical science 1992-2006 using Nobel prizes, Lasker (clinical medicine) awards and Gairdner Awards (NLG metric)
The Nobel prize for medicine or physiology, the Lasker award for clinical medicine, and the Gairdner international award are given to individuals for their role in developing theories, technologies and discoveries which have changed the direction of biomedical science. These distinctions have been used to develop an NLG metric to measure research performance and trends in ‘revolutionary’ biomedical science with the aim of identifying the premier revolutionary science research institutions and nations from 1992-2006. I have previously argued that the number of Nobel laureates in the biomedical field should be expanded to at least about nine per year and the NLG metric attempts to predict the possible results of such an expansion. One hundred and nineteen NLG prizes and awards were made during the past fifteen years (about eight per year) when overlapping awards had been removed. Eighty-five were won by the USA, revealing a massive domination in revolutionary biomedical science by this nation; the UK was second with sixteen awards; Canada had five, Australia four and Germany three. The USA had twelve elite centres of revolutionary biomedical science, with University of Washington at Seattle and MIT in first position with six awards and prizes each; Rockefeller University and Caltech were jointly second placed with five. Surprisingly, Harvard University – which many people rank as the premier world research centre – failed to reach the threshold of three prizes and awards, and was not included in the elite list. The University of Oxford, UK, was the only institution outside of the USA which featured as a significant centre of revolutionary biomedical science. Long-term success at the highest level of revolutionary biomedical science (and probably other sciences) probably requires a sufficiently large number of individually-successful large institutions in open competition with one another – as in the USA. If this model cannot be replicated within smaller nations, then it implies that such arrangements need to be encouraged and facilitated in multi-national units.
I have previously argued that Nobel prizes (and other similar international awards and medals) may be used in scientometrics to measure research performance and trends in ‘revolutionary’ science ; with the aim of identifying the premier revolutionary science research institutions and nations .
Nobel prizes are typically awarded for theories, technologies and discoveries which have changed the direction of a science. By contrast, most successful scientific research is 'normal science' which represents a more incremental improvement on already existing work: normal science takes science further in an established direction rather than starting a new direction [1,2,3].
Biomedical research currently constitutes the dominant world science in terms of volume, funding and prestige. I have argued that the number of Nobel laureates in the biomedical field (ie. the prize in physiology or medicine, and sometimes chemistry) should therefore be expanded from the current maximum of three to a minimum of six, preferably nine, per year to recognize this dominance .
In the following analysis, I have attempted to predict the possible results of such expansion by creating a metric from Nobel prizes in physiology/ medicine  and adding two other prestigious awards: the Lasker award for clinical medical research and the Gairdner international award; over a fifteen year time span of 1992-2006 inclusive.
The NLG metric
I recorded the national and institutional affiliations of Nobel laureates who received the prize for medicine or physiology during the period 1992-2006, affiliations were allocated for the time laureates received the prize . Lasker and Gairdner awards were likewise noted for that period.
The approximately-annual Lasker Award for clinical medical research recognizes up to three scientists whose work pioneers a major improvement in clinical management or treatment . Unlike the Lasker award for basic medical research, which frequently predicts a Nobel prize in Physiology/ Medicine, the clinical medical research award does not frequently overlap with the Nobel prize. The Gairdner International award  is given to about six outstanding biomedical scientists per year, so the Gairdner award contributes about half the weight to this metric.
My impression is that early Gairdner awards considerably over-represented Canada (the award is administered from Toronto), and even now this probably still remains a small bias because Canada got five Gairdner awards (from the sixty-two included in this analysis) from 1992-2006, but no Nobels or Laskers. Therefore I restricted this analysis to the past 15 years when the Gairdner seems to have functioned as a more validly ‘international’ award for merit. I also considered including in the revolutionary science metric the one-winner-per-year Lasker award for basic medical research, but there were was such a high degree of overlap with the Gairdner award that this was omitted for the sake of simplicity and clarity.
Credit for the prize or award was given to the institution and nation to which the winner was affiliated at the time of the award (except where it was clear that the winner had moved in the past few months while awaiting the award). It would certainly be more valid to award credit to institutions and nations on the basis of where the prize- or award-winning research was actually accomplished, and I hope that future researchers will be able to do the investigative work needed to accomplish this.
Each individual scientist was counted only once, because a scientist who won more than one of these prizes and awards was credited for just one on the assumption that the Nobel is senior to the Lasker, and the Lasker is senior to the Gairdner. Credit for the prize or award was therefore given to the institution or nation to which the winner was affiliated at the time of the senior award or prize. Sometimes a Lasker or Gairdner award winner had also received a Nobel prize for chemistry (rather than medicine/ physiology) – such individuals affiliations were allocated for the time of winning either the Lasker or Gairdner.
This process created a pool of one hundred and nineteen winners, which (over fifteen years) represents an average of about eight winners per year – about the number of annual laureates I recommended for the Nobel prize in medicine. As in previous analyses [7,8] I set a minimum threshold of three prizes or awards before an institution or nation qualified as a centre of revolutionary science, on the basis that one or two might be luck or coincidence, but three prizes/ awards probably indicates systematic strength.
Measuring revolutionary science by counting such rare and highly-selective prizes and awards, and also of setting a minimum of three prizes and awards before a nation or institution registers as a significant centre, means that the NLG metric inevitably generates many false negatives. It must be presumed that many valuable centres of revolutionary science are not picked-up by this metric.
However, for the same reasons, the NLG metric is unlikely to generate many false positives; and the listed centres of revolutionary biomedical science can be assumed to deserve their elite status with a high degree of confidence - subject to the above caveats about the method of counting affiliations at the time of winning, rather than accomplishing the work which led-to winning.
Table 1 – Number of Nobel, Lasker, Gairdner (NLG) winners 1992-2005 by nation.
A minimum of three winners is required for inclusion as a centre of revolutionary biomedical science.
Table 2 - Number of Nobel, Lasker, Gairdner (NLG) winners 1992-2005 by institution (all institutions are in the USA, excepting Oxford).
University Washington, Seattle 6
A minimum of three winners is required for inclusion as a centre of revolutionary biomedical science. UCSF = University of California at San Francisco; CRC = Cancer Research Center.
NLG metric National and Institutional analysis
The NLG metric national distribution reveals a massive dominance of the USA in revolutionary biomedical science, confirming the previous results of US domination for revolutionary science generally, and provides further confirmation of a trend that this US domination may be increasing [7,8]. The
The finding of overwhelming US domination is particularly interesting when contrasted with the probability that the ‘rest of the world’ is probably catching-up with the USA in terms of ‘normal science’ metrics (with these metrics presumably dominated by biomedical research) such as numbers of publications and citations. For instance, the European Union nations and
The University of Washington at Seattle comes joint-top of the league table for revolutionary biomedical science (with MIT) which may surprise those observers who have failed to notice the rise to international prominence of this institution . In a separate analysis of total Web of Science citations per US university, we also found that University of Washington was ranked fourth (after Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Stanford) . So the clear implication is that University of Washington at Seattle should now be considered one of the truly elite research universities of the world, and that its pre-eminence is probably focused in biomedical science. Something similar also applies in relation to UCSF (University of California at San Francisco) . It was also surprising to see the great strength of MIT in biomedical science, when this institution has traditionally been associated more with the physical sciences (and economics); and something similar applies to Caltech (joint second place) – which, unlike MIT, has no medical school.
Perhaps even more startling was the failure of Harvard to reach the threshold of three winners required in order to feature on this league table. During 1992-2006 Harvard achieved only two Gairdner awards and neither a Nobel prize for medicine nor a Lasker award. This confirms the relatively poor showing of Harvard in my previous analyses of performance in revolutionary science such as Nobel trends from 1947-2006 , and the analysis for the past 20 years which includes Fields medals, Lasker awards and Turing awards .
Yet during the past three decades Harvard has massively dominated all other institutions in the world in terms of scientific research production such as numbers of papers published and number of citations earned (, and unpublished results from Web of Science by Peter Andras and Bruce G Charlton, Newcastle University, UK). Also Harvard has topped the authoritative Shanghai Jiao Tong university table of world universities by a large margin since its inception in 2003.
My interpretation of this overall picture is that, over recent decades, Harvard has failed to orientate its priorities towards the cutting-edge of the major dominant branch of world science. The institution has clearly been successful in maintaining massive productivity in very high quality ‘normal science’; but apparently has not encouraged the much riskier endeavours in the type of revolutionary biomedical science which wins major prizes, medals and awards.
Revolutionary biomedical science outside the USA
The University of Oxford is the only institution outside of the US which has won three prizes or awards in the past fifteen years and thereby ranks as a major centre of revolutionary biomedical science. This good performance of Oxford is in-line with that university’s increasingly emphasis on science (probably especially medical science) over recent decades, and its catching-up with its UK rival Cambridge and also with the US ‘Ivy League’ in terms of science production [11,12].
In the UK the other thirteen prizes and awards (outside of Oxford) are scattered across nine different institutions, so that less than twenty percent of UK NLGs were won by significant UK centres of revolutionary bioscience. This contrasts with the
Due to the limitations of the Gairdner award more than fifteen years ago, I am unsure of the long-term UK trend in revolutionary biomedical science; but given that the UK seems to be declining as a centre of revolutionary science-in-general  it seems a plausible hypothesis that the US dominance in revolutionary science is a consequence of having revolutionary science concentrated in a relatively large number of individually significant and successful institutions. Furthermore these elite US institutions are apparently in competition as judged by the rise to prominence of the University of Washington at Seattle and UCSF, and the decline of Harvard. Moreover, this is apparently an open competition since it has enabled new entrants to this status as well as relegation from this status.
However, it must be remembered that the NLG only measures the visible and most fully-validated tip of an iceberg of revolutionary science. These prizes and awards credit successful revolutionary science which has changed the direction of a discipline in a big way, and where credit for this can be allocated to a single person or a few individuals. It is almost certain, on general theoretical grounds derived from complex systems theory , that the process of generating major breakthroughs in revolutionary science must be supported by a much larger submerged base of revolutionary science research which is harder to identify with confidence, and where credit for achievements is more diffused between individuals.
The possible lesson for countries outside the US may be that long-term success at the highest level of revolutionary biomedical science (and probably other sciences) may require a sufficiently large number of sufficiently large and individually-successful institutions in open competition with one another. If this model cannot be replicated within smaller nations, then it implies that such arrangements need to be encouraged and facilitated in multi-national units, such as the European Union.
Acknowledgement: Thanks are due to Peter Andras whose conversation and collaboration fuelled this work.
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Bruce G Charlton MD
Editor-in-Chief – Medical Hypotheses