Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Europe on the rise?

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry goes to Gerhard Ertl. I know precious little about Chemistry, and not much more about Medicine or Physics, but it has been interesting to see how Europeans are scooping the awards this year. Ertl is German and works at the MPG in Berlin, the Physics prize was shared between Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg, who work in France and Germany, respectively. Americans have been successful only in the Medicine prize so far, two out of three laureates are working in American universities, the third being based in Cardiff.

Why do I care? Well, looking at the list of laureates from recent years, the US universities have dominated. Last year, all the laureates in sciences (Chemistry, Physics, Medicine, Economics) were Americans, working at US universities. And that's been the trend, people might be from where ever, but at the time of the award they'd probably be working at US universities.

Even if the award is personal, it is seen also as an award to the institution, and the institution undoubtedly reaps some of the indirect benefits of the prize; as publicity, better candidates for students and staff, also points in rankings and weight within the field. Now these benefits are coming to Europe, and they are also indicators that you can get to the very top of science in Europe as well, you don't need to go West to be able to do that.

Of course, the pinch of salt is that still, looking at the recent laureates, a couple of more "European years" would be needed to change the balance at all. Also, all the laureates are from European heavy-weight countries and institutions, and making conclusions about Europe in general might be a step too far. Also, we can't say that these awards are now results of the integration and rather ambitious science policy that the European countries have made lately, largely with EU funding, or that this now shows that the competitiveness-issue is solved. But it can be seen as a positive signal and as these prizes always, an inspiration.

(Pic: the Nobel medal)

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