Winning Ways of US Science

Nobel Magnet

Born in Austria, Walter Kohn fled his mountain homeland to avoid persecution in the Nazi Holocaust. This week, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist is reflecting on the wartime diaspora of other European figures of science - Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein - who helped create an American domination of physics, chemistry, and medicine that has yet to wane.

"I am looking at photos of this week's [US] Nobel Prize winners and I see a Brit, a German, an ethnic Chinese, and an Austrian," says Dr. Kohn of the University of California, Santa Barbara, who found out Tuesday was a winner of the 1998 prize for chemistry. "We have all taken advantage of the excellent climate for scientific research that has long existed in the United States."

Kohn's observation is being widely discussed this week with news that five US-based scientists won Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry, and three more won for physiology or medicine. The awards reinforce a 20th-century trend of American dominance of the Nobel Prizes, the most prestigious and coveted honor, in all four fields.

At the same time, others wonder when 10-plus years of congressional cuts to basic science research will begin to show on the global scale.

"For the last decade, the proportion of money the US spends on science as a proportion of [gross national product] is smaller than [that of] Europe or Japan," says Steven Brush, a science historian at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It is a puzzle for many that we aren't yet beginning to feel the effects of such decreased funding. We grit our teeth that it might be soon."

For now, as this week's Nobel announcements confirm, the preeminence of research establishments such as the University of California, Stanford, Princeton, and Columbia remains very strong. By affiliating themselves with such top institutions and scores of others both public and private, Americans and foreign migrs alike are adding to a superiority that was once primarily the province of Germany and Britain. Since the prizes began in 1901, the US has won 186 to Germany's 64 and Britain's 67 in the categories of chemistry, physics, and physiology/medicine.

Despite the decline in US science funding, which began around 1988, observers say American strength in scientific research remains superior for several reasons - at least for now. The postwar buildup of financial support for such endeavors - in the wake of public awareness of scientific inventions such as the atomic bomb - is probably the most significant.

"While Europe, Japan, and the Soviet Union were rebuilding devastated countries,... America was putting huge amounts of emphasis on the kinds of science that helped win the war," says Jerome Singer, professor emeritus of engineering and biophysics at UC Berkeley. "The amount of money we have put into research has attracted the very best and brightest in the world." That includes hundreds of top scientists from the former Soviet Union.

Educational depth and diversity, competition (which drives salaries up), and academic freedom are all hallmarks of American universities that continue to attract top US and foreign achievers, say Mr. Singer and others. Kohn lauds American institutions' tradition of allowing and encouraging graduate students to study broadly rather than specialize.

Kohn himself trained in and has taught physics for four decades but was awarded a Nobel Prize for chemistry. John Pople, Kohn's chemistry co-winner, describes himself as primarily a mathematician.

"Physicists here become equipped ... to communicate and appreciate physics far beyond their own primary concern," Kohn says.

ANOTHER advantage in America, Kohn and others say, is that researchers can chart their own route and are less strapped by funding. Once appointed to the lowest level of faculty, Kohn says, a person "has virtually complete independence in deciding how to proceed through their career." In other countries, that person "might be trapped beneath a single academic with very limited vision."

A final strength for the US, some say, is lack of a centralized, state-dominated bureaucracy that controls funding and research.

"People complain ... that we should have fewer agencies ... and it would be nice to consolidate them for quality control," says Mr. Brush. "But in a way the US system is better because it is chaotic and disorganized. An oddball, offbeat idea has more of a chance of being researched and proven successful here than in a Korea, Russia, or Japan. In those places, you pretty much have one place to go [for funding]. Here you have a whole host of alternatives."

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