Pure and Applied Nobel Winners, But Not Educated in America
All seven of this year’s Nobel Prize winners in science were born and educated outside of the United States—a growing trend. And while last year’s prizes went to applied research, this year’s awards went to mostly abstract “pure” research.
Yoshinori Ohsumi of the Tokyo Institute of Technology was the sole winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his basic work with yeast cells, discovering how cells digest wastes by “autophagy.” This will be important in understanding a variety of diseases.
David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and John Kosterlitz, all born and educated in the United Kingdom, share the Nobel in Physics “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”—important theoretical work with future applications.
And Jean-Pierre Sauvage (French), Sir Fraser Stoddart (United Kingdom) and Bernard Feringa (Netherlands) will share the physics prize for the design and synthesis of machines on a molecular scale.
While none of these scientists were born or educated in the United States, four of them now work at American universities. So the U.S. news media claims them as Americans. Indeed looking back over a century of science Nobels, the U.S. has benefitted from foreign born and educated scientists for many of “our” Nobel Prizes. One factor was the massive flight of intellectuals from the Third Reich before World War II. Since then, the U.S. has been able to attract foreign born and educated scientists with state-of-the-art research facilities at our research universities. However, how long we will be able to lure foreign scientists is questionable as the living standards, research money and research facilities improve greatly in the European Union and in Asia.
Yet we hold an illusion that American K–12 science education must be fairly good because “we” keep getting Nobel Prizes. The press just forgets to mention that many of these “American” scientists were not educated here.
There is much to praise in American classical science education where the science teacher conducted lab work and field trips to make the science “meaningful.” And it was the American science teacher who was free to design lessons for the interests of local students. And American teachers were trained to avoid rote questioning and recitation, and to ask questions that required students to analyze data, interpret graphs, and generate new questions. —That is, until No Child Left Behind came along. The rote teaching-to-the-test that has been imposed, along with the earlier outcomes-based movement has produced two decades of decline in American student creativity. It takes time for the importance of discoveries to be assessed and the most recent American Nobel prizewinners in science were educated before the great standardization of teaching occurred under No Child Left Behind. Meanwhile, many other countries have moved toward adopting our earlier American-style questioning and lab inquiry.
A second factor involved is the pure-versus-applied research dichotomy. Fifty years ago, poorer foreign countries had to focus their scientists and resources on solving applied problems. America had faith in “pure science” that explored fundamental principles that might have no immediate consequences in medicine or industry. Being the country with more pure research also gave us an edge in Nobel Prizes.
This year’s science prizes went to mostly pure research that is only beginning to show applications. On the other hand, the 2015 science prizes went to some very applied research. The 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to William C. Campbell (Irish, but working at Drew University) and Satoshi Omura (Japanese) for discovering a treatment against roundworm parasites, and to Youyou Tu for developing a treatment for malaria. This last award was also the first science Nobel prize awarded to a Chinese researcher doing research in China. (It won’t be their last.)
Meanwhile, research universities brag that their “pure” research mission makes them superior. However, it was no less than the great Louis Pasteur who said that there is no distinction between pure and applied research, but “just science and the application of science.” Whether in pure or applied science, it is our American educational system that is not getting any recent prizes.