From press reports last week, you would assume that eight of the nine science Nobel Prizes were swept by United States scientists—another affirmation that the American system of education was still the best in the world’s best, at least 8/9ths of the time.
Well, count again. The press stretched the facts in making all but one of them seem American. In truth, all but three were schooled elsewhere.
The 2009 Nobel in Physics went to three scientists. Charles K. Kao was born in Shanghai and got his doctorate from University of London. Willard S. Boyle was born in Nova Scotia and educated in Canada. Only one, George E. Smith was born and educated in the U.S.
The 2009 Nobel in Chemistry went to three researchers. While Venkatraman Ramakrishnan is a U.S. national, he was born and educated through his bachelor’s degree in India, and today works at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the United Kingdom. Ada E. Yonath was born and educated through graduate school in Israel (and is the only one of the nine recognized by the press to not be American.) Again, only one, Thomas A. Steitz, was born and educated in the United States.
The 2009 Nobel in Physiology or Medicine went to three researchers. While Elizabeth H. Blackburn is currently a resident of the United States, she was born and educated in Australia. Although he resides in the U.S., Jack W. Szostak, was born in London and is a Canadian. Only one of the three, Carol W. Greider, is an American educated in American schools.
So, only three out of the nine science Nobel Laureates are products of the U.S. educational system. And those three Americans were all educated in the U.S. before the "Nation At Risk" report threw the U.S. into a frenzy of educational reforms that has culminated in teach-to-the-test memorization. They were all educated by our earlier educational system that allowed science teachers to decide what to teach, how to teach, and when to teach with ample opportunity for creative course and labwork. That is hard to find today due to the oppressive standardization movement. Because there is a lag period between when research is accomplished and when time shows it is critical enough to be of Nobel Prize stature, the last years' awards have provided plenty of evidence that U.S. dominance of the science prizes is coming to an end.
The fact that most of these researchers came to the U.S. for research opportunities shows that we "bought" many prizewinners with our state-of-the-art research facilities. But while the U.S. university system is still considered the best in the world, more and more young international talent is now going elsewhere. One-third of the new U.S. patents are by foreign-born scientists. Recent international rankings of universities show a decline in U.S. schools and a rise in Asian schools.z
Defenders of the current U.S. system declare that other countries only educate a small elite while we educate all children. That is no longer correct. In my last trips to Beijing, Nanjing, and Shanghai, China’s schools were graduating over 70% of their students into college, and nearly all of those students finished college in four years, a much higher rate than for the U.S.
Other countries have always envied our ability to teach students to be creative. They had a standard national curricula that forced teachers to teach-to-the-test. They admit: "We are not impressed with our students’ ability to rank number one on international tests. We teach our students to take tests. We don’t get Nobel Prizes." Korea and Singpore and China are attempting to get off of national standardization in order to provide their teachers the autonomy to vary teaching. Meanwhile, the U.S. is only months away from moving to national standards, locking us into teaching-to-the-test, and shutting down our remaining creative science teachers.
American-education scientists won three, not eight of the nine science Nobel Prizes. Enjoy them while we have them. We may not see many more.