Europeans have dominated the four science-based Nobel Prizes this year – and not for the first time. Of nine scientists sharing the four prizes, eight are Europeans, and one is Japanese. Yet a look at the institutional affiliation of the Nobel Laureates defies this impression, as six work in the United States. Only two of the Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, Ben Feringa (University of Groningen) and Jean-Pierre Sauvage (Centre national de la recherche scientifique/University of Strasbourg) have spanned their careers in Europe, with Yoshinori Ohsumi, Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, affiliated to the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
The success of US institutions in attracting outstanding international scholars is not news. Indeed Horizon 2020’s First Pillar explicitly set out to improve Europe’s participation in top-level research, including improving the proportion of Nobel Prize Laureates. And yet, despite the obvious time-lag involved in such objectives, this goal seems as far away as ever.
We must not lose sight of this goal, of improving Europe’s attractiveness for basic scientists, in the ninth framework programme (FP9). A fundamental question here must be how we can ensure adequate support for Europe’s top researchers, through the funding they receive, and the facilities they work in. The European Research Council was surely right to celebrate its support to Prof. Feringa through its grants. Yet, we need to do more. We need to strengthen experimental science, but not only in a way that benefits Europe’s top-ranked universities. What is required is a more effective exploitation of Europe’s rich and diverse research infrastructure, wherever that is located. And this includes finding more effective ways to attract and retain top scientists to work in the outstanding facilities that have been created, often with EU support, in all parts of Europe.
11 October 2016