Americans Sweep Scientific Nobel Prizes

Of the three Nobel Prizes announced this week, the five different researchers share one decidedly common trait: They're all American.

The members who cast the ballots for the winners of the prizes in medicine, physics and chemistry aren't surprised.

Gunnar Oquist, the permanent secretary for the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, which oversees the science-related Nobels, said Wednesday that Europe has simply fallen behind the U.S. when it comes to funding and ambition.

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"Europe should have ambitions to operate at the same level of new discoveries as the U.S. has," Oquist said. "I think it's up to the European politicians to think about this, and do something about it. Because it can be done. If we take a 25-year-perspective, and the financing at the European level starts to match that in the U.S. for basic research, I'm sure we will reach the same level."

It's rare for Americans not to be tapped for any science prize. The last time an American did not receive the chemistry prize, or a share of it, was in 1991 when Richard R. Ernst of Switzerland won for contributions to the development of the high-resolution nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

In 2004, seven Americans were among the 10 laureates for the science prizes in medicine, physics, chemistry and economics. Last year, the figure was 5 out of 10.

The last true sweep of the physics, chemistry and medicine prices by Americans came in 1983 when Henry Taube won the chemistry prize, Barbara McClintock the medicine prize and Subramanyan Chandrasekhar and William A. Fowler shared the physics prize. Also, Gerard Debreu won the economics prize.

The American science sweep began Monday with the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine going to Americans Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello for discovering a powerful way to turn off the effect of specific genes, opening a potential new avenue for fighting diseases as diverse as cancer and AIDS.

On Tuesday, Americans John C. Mather and George F. Smoot won the physics prize for work that helped cement the big-bang theory of how the universe was created and deepen understanding of the origin of galaxies and stars.

On Wednesday, American Roger D. Kornberg was awarded the prize in chemistry for his studies of how cells take information from genes to produce proteins, a process that could provide insight into defeating cancer and advancing stem cell research.

Kornberg, whose father shared the medicine prize in 1959, said the vast number of U.S. researchers was also a factor.

"Beyond the magnitude of the public financial support of science, one must also bear in mind simply the size of the scientific establishment," he said. "There are many extraordinary scientists, as you know, elsewhere. ... But the sheer number in the United States is very large."

Anders Liljas, member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, said the decision to give Kornberg the prize was an example of what he called the American edge over the rest of the world because Kornberg had a decade to research his science without being pressured to publish a finding immediately.

"A granting system in which you can survive doing science with nothing publishable for a long period of time is certainly not what we have in Sweden, and probably other countries as well," Liljas said. "To have good funding is a very important part."

Liljas said American universities often have a more "creative university environment" than those in other countries.

"Creative means that people interact with each other a lot," he said. "It means you should talk to each other also, and not work as hermits, separately."