Monday, January 15, 2007

Nobels as Valid Measurement of Scientific Progress?

If this statistic of Nobel prizes is a valid measure of revolutionary science, then the main conclusion is that the USA has emerged to become the only nation that supports revolutionary science on a large scale. It seems that long-term strength in revolutionary science is mainly a product of a nation possessing numerous elite research institutions where revolutionary science thrives. A nation lacking such institutions will win relatively few Nobel prizes, and prizes will be spread around many institutions (eg. in Germany, the various Max Planck research institutions sometimes win a single Nobel prize, but no specific institute has ever won two prizes in 20 years).

Over the past 60 years, the UK has declined from being the only non-US focus of revolutionary science, to joining Switzerland and Germany (with nine prizes) as the kind of place where normal science has been thriving but revolutionary science is thinly-distributed and sporadic in occurrence. Presumably, recent US improvement has therefore been driven mainly by within-nation competition.

In contrast to the picture of long term decline in Nobel-prize-winning revolutionary science; UK and European scientific production (also that of Chinese science) is probably catching up with the USA in terms of scientometric measures such as numbers of publications and citations [12,13]. This difference between national performance in normal and revolutionary science seems to suggest that the research systems of revolutionary science and normal science are evolving towards separation [3]. Clearly, growth of the two types of science does not always go-together.

In future, it would probably be beneficial if this increasing separation between revolutionary and normal science were made explicit, with institutional self-definition and specialization, and differentiated funding streams and evaluation criteria for the small number of elite revolutionary science institutions [4]. Part of this process would be the development of a distinctive set of scientometric measures for revolutionary science. Counting Nobel laureates could be a first step in this direction.

There are a lot of profound discoveries that are simply not noticed by the Nobels: they are sometimes in areas that are not covered. It's something to think about though. As is the second part.

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