For the majority of the last century North America has been at the epicentre of global scientific research. However, through the course of the 21st century other countries have begun to close this gap in a number of ways, notably China is now the global leader in published research and is on course to overtake the US in research spending by the 2020s. Reporting on findings from a recent study of Nobel Laureates, Arlette Jappe, David Pithan and Thomas Heinze, suggest that whilst the period of North American hegemony in scientific research has come to an end, the North American science system remains dominant, as judged by its ability to attract and educate existing and future scientific leaders.    

The Nobel Prize is regarded by many as the most prestigious prize for scientists, and has received considerable scholarly attention. Many past studies have focused on the laureates themselves, their careers and collaboration partners, but also their bibliometric characteristics. There is a general agreement that North America is the global leader in science, which is illustrated by the large proportion of American laureates. Yet, there is disagreement about when exactly leadership shifted from Europe to North America, and whether Asia – and especially China – have challenged the North American hegemony in science, especially since the enormous growth of scientific research in these countries since the 1990s. 

To contribute to this discussion, we created a database of all Nobel laureates (n=599) that received the Nobel Prize in Physics, Chemistry, or Physiology or Medicine from 1901 to 2017. Special importance was given to three career events: where (future) laureates attained their highest degree (such as an M.D. or Ph.D), where they performed their prize-winning research, and where they worked when they received the prize. Furthermore, we delineated three world regions: Europe, North America, as well as Asia-Pacific. Then, we analyzed laureate mobility across the three career events and regions. Thus, instead of basing our analysis on a laureate’s nationality or place of birth, the region and specific setting where they received their scientific training and where they did their prize-winning research was measured and compared. 

The global distribution of laureates across the three career events illustrates four somewhat overlapping periods that characterize the shifting balance between the three world regions. In the first (1920s to 1940s), North America started to catch up to Europe’s lead, eating into Europe’s strong position. The second period (1940s to 1960s) marks a transition – by the 1960s, North America had surpassed Europe not only in regard of Nobel Prizes and prize-winning research, but also in the scientific training of future laureates, i.e. all three career-events. The 1970s to the 1990s, as the third period, represent North American hegemony, with roughly three-quarters of all laureates working and receiving their prize in North America. The fourth period (2000s until today) illustrates a new dynamic: North American shares start to decline, Europe consolidates, whereas Asia-Pacific shows a strong growth, due mainly to Japan (not China!). 

Based on these four periods, we analyzed laureate mobility between regions. North America attracted on average about 11 laureates every 10 years from Europe or Asia-Pacific during its hegemonic period. Migration to North America has remained strong also in the fourth period, suggesting a continued attractiveness of the North American science system. In addition, we tracked whether future laureates worked with other laureates as graduate or postdoctoral researchers, or as junior collaborators. Such master-apprentice relations indicate the effective transfer of the ability to conduct ground-breaking research from one generation of scientists to another. Though Europe held most master-apprentice relations until the 1970s, already during the second period (1940s to 1960s) transatlantic master-apprentice relations were common. During its hegemony, North America reached a peak of such relations in the 1990s, but they plummeted in the 2010s. 

North America’s scientific hegemony has often been attributed to the organizational design of its research universities, which compete more actively for scientific talent and adopt scientific innovations faster than universities and research institutions in Europe (and elsewhere). Therefore, we measured the share of newcomer organizations (universities, research institutes, etc.) entering the inter-organizational competition for scientific talent for the first time. The share of newcomers indicates the degree of renewal (versus inertia) within the Nobel population. We found a general trend of decreasing shares of newcomer organizations across all regions, but the share of North American newcomers was significantly higher than in Europe not only before, but also during the hegemonic period. 

In sum, our results suggest that North America’s rise as a global power in science started in the 1920s, it consolidated its leadership position by the 1970s, and held this position until the 1990s. The decline in North American laureates, as well as in master-apprentice relations illustrate a moderate weakening of the North American hegemony, yet inter-regional migration shows that North America has remained the most attractive global destination for scientific research. While Asia-Pacific’s shares have increased, this region has not taken over global scientific leadership. Our results from the entire Nobel population are further corroborated by bibliometric research that shows a declining citation impact gap between North America and other world regions since the 2000s. However, the global center of science has not shifted to other regions so far, neither back to Europe nor to the Asia-Pacific region. 


This post is based on the authors’ co-authored article, From North American hegemony to global competition for scientific leadership? Insights from the Nobel population, published in PlosOne.

About the authors:

Arlette Jappe is senior researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center for Science and Technology Studies (IZWT) at the University of Wuppertal. Her research interests include research organisations and institutional renewal, bibliometric research methods, sociology of professions, and research capacity development in sustainability sciences.

David Pithan is a PhD student at the Institute of Sociology at the University of Wuppertal. His research interests include qualitative and quantitative research methods, network analysis, neo-institutional theory, and historical discourse analysis.

Thomas Heinze is full professor of organisational sociology and deputy director at the Interdisciplinary Center for Science and Technology Studies (IZWT) at the University of Wuppertal. His research interests include the emergence and diffusion of scientific breakthroughs, public research organisations, research evaluation, theories of institutional change, organisational theory, and comparative historical sociology.


Image credit: Duangphorn Wiriya via Unsplash (Licensed under a CC0 1.0 licence).

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