- The Washington Times - Friday, October 8, 2004

Americans have captured or shared in all three 2004 Nobel Prizes awarded in scientific fields, a result that seems to contradict complaints of declines in U.S. scientific research and science education.

“I’m very gratified to see how well we’ve done this year,” said Al Teich, director of science and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science..

He was referring to the fact that this week three Americans won the Nobel Prize for Physics; two won the prize for medicine or physiology; and a third shared the prize for chemistry with two Israelis.

It also was “unusual” that the six Nobel laureates in science “were all born in the United States,” said Mr. Teich. “Historically, about a third of U.S. Nobel Prizes are awarded to Americans born outside this country.”

Even so, he cautioned that the new Nobel citations “must be put in perspective,” and they are not a signal that all is well in the American scientific community.

First of all, he noted, the six Americans awarded science-related Nobels “were awarded for work that was done years ago.” For example, the physics prize honored breakthrough research conducted in 1973, Mr. Teich said.

The research that won the chemistry prize was conducted in the early 1980s, added Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists. “A Nobel Prize is more a measure of how good science was 20 years ago than today,” he said yesterday.

“Nobel Prizes are based on how influential work has been,” said Mr. Teich.

In terms of sheer size of its scientific research efforts, the United States remains the world leader, Mr. Teich said.

“We produce 30 percent of the world’s scientific articles and have more [research and development] than all the other G-7 countries combined,” Mr. Teich said. “We’ve always been able to cultivate very smart people and give them the opportunity to develop their potential.”

But Mr. Teich worries that the United States’ black and Hispanic students with potential for scientific careers are “being locked out at any early age” by inferior, urban public schools.

Assertions that the United States is losing its scientific edge and prestige have been common in recent press reports. In a newspaper interview last spring, Mr. Teich expressed concerned that the nation might be on the brink of a scientific decline.

The National Science Board, the National Science Foundation and other organizations that track science indicators say the U.S. share of scientific-research publications, Nobel Prize awards and some types of patents is declining.

A report last spring in the Physical Review, a physics journal, showed that Americans’ share of Nobel Prize awards peaked from the 1960s through the 1990s.

Prior to this week’s excellent showing, American scientists received only 51 percent of Nobels in science in the four previous years. The rest went to Britain, Japan, Russia, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and New Zealand.

The most recent NSB report said that in 2002, Switzerland had the greatest per-capita number of Nobel Prizes and scientific citations in literature .

The country also was responsible for 60 percent of applied research and development that year, it said.

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study, released in June, showed that American high school seniors rank below students in 17 other countries in science and mathematics literacy.

That study also found that American high school seniors scored last among those in 16 countries tested in physics. What’s more, it said the United States ranks below 13 other nations in the percentage of 24-year-olds with a college degree in science, math or engineering. That’s down from a third-place ranking in 1979.

National data indicate that between 1994 and 2001 the number of U.S. students enrolling in science and engineering graduate programs fell by 10 percent.

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