Democracy trumps cash as key to Nobel success

October 7, 2013 by Peter Harmsen

For a scientist to win a Nobel Prize, many things have to come together—ample funding, a supportive environment, even luck. But one rarely recognised factor may be more important than any other: democracy.

"Of course, you need to have at least the fundamental resources," said Swedish virologist Erling Norrby, a former member of the Nobel Committee for Medicine. "But science also requires an open society. A democratic system is very important."

There is solid science behind the claim that democratic systems and Nobel prizes go together, according to Warren Smith, an American mathematician with the website

He has carried out statistical analysis on the correlation between a society's level of and its ability to rack up Nobel Prizes. The conclusion: Democracies create Nobel-worthy , non-democratic regimes don't.

"It could be a fluke, but it's unlikely. There's a statistical probability of 0.01 that something this impressive could happen by chance," said Smith, whose study excluded the peace prize.

Even the Soviet Union, often highlighted as an authoritarian state that could produce good research, may be less of an exception than it seems.

On a per-capita basis, the United States has done 17 times better than the former Soviet Union, Denmark 39 times better.

The democracy link could also go a long way towards explaining the pro-Western bias of the Nobel prize.

Historically, 247 out of altogether 834 Nobel Laureates—including winners of the literature and peace prizes—were born in the United States. Many more did their Nobel-winning research at US universities.

Middle Eastern countries have performed badly in the prize stakes—a phenomenon some have sought to explain with religion.

Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins stated this year in a controversial tweet that "all the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge."

But Nidhal Guessoum, an Algerian-born astrophysicist with the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, warned against seeing the Islamic Nobel dearth as exceptional.

"Brazil, with its 200 million population, has not had any Nobel prizes in any category, whereas Egypt, with 80 million, has had four, including one in science, though the work was done in the US," he said, also pointing out a lack of Nobel recognition for China.

"And yet I haven't heard anyone hint at 'underlying deficiencies' in the Brazilian and Chinese cultures."

Instead, some scholars say, the poor performance of countries as diverse as China and Saudi Arabia in the Nobel stakes might be explained by their autocratic nature.

"There is a lack of democratic culture, and a culture of debate and controversy. And science needs debate. You need to be able to disagree with someone without insulting him," said Jean Staune, a philosopher of science at the Interdisciplinary University of Paris.

This particular "spirit of democracy" was also a key feature in a celebrated speech by prominent Swedish academic Sune Bergstroem in 1976, when he described the rapid expansion of American universities in the immediate post-war years.

"The growth of university research was characterised by a dynamic openness in forms which might be characterised as a democracy of research workers," he said.

James Wilsdon, an expert on and politics at the University of Sussex, pointed out that one laureate after the other talks about "a particular form of creativity and freedom" allowing research that "sometimes goes in unexpected directions."

But it is not enough that the research institute where the Nobel-aspiring scientist works is democratic. The society outside the gates has to be democratic too, according to Wilsdon.

Rich countries in the Gulf region have spent large sums of money on universities built from scratch and meant to operate as oases of free thinking inside otherwise closed societies, but so far with little to show for their efforts, he said.

"In the case of countries in the Middle East, it is doubtful if you can artificially create that culture in a microcosm without a broader openness in the social system," he said.

Explore further: Nobel Peace Prize to be announced in Oslo

Related Stories

Nobel Peace Prize to be announced in Oslo

October 12, 2012

(AP)—After vetting candidates for seven months, the Norwegian judges for the Nobel Peace Prize will reveal the winner of the coveted award on Friday, capping a week of Nobel Prize announcements.

Nobel chemistry prize to be announced in Stockholm

October 10, 2012

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences will announce the winners of the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday, capping this year's science awards before the Nobel spotlight moves to literature and peace.

QR code access to Nobel Prizes in Chemistry

September 4, 2013

Mobile devices equipped with a QR (quick response) code scanning app, which gives consumers instant access to information on the Web, now can give the same access to 110 years of information about the most prestigious honors ...

British scientist wins top French prize

September 18, 2013

Margaret Buckingham, a Scottish-born biologist, has been awarded one of France's top science prizes, the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) announced on Wednesday.

Recommended for you

Preventing chemical weapons as sciences converge

November 15, 2018

Alarming examples of the dangers from chemical weapons have been seen recently in the use of industrial chemicals and the nerve agent sarin against civilians in Syria, and in the targeted assassination operations using VX ...

Rare fossil bird deepens mystery of avian extinctions

November 13, 2018

During the late Cretaceous period, more than 65 million years ago, birds belonging to hundreds of different species flitted around the dinosaurs and through the forests as abundantly as they flit about our woods and fields ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Oct 07, 2013
Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that the committee are from democratic nations? Given a (subjective !) choice of what merits a Nobel Prize that might play a role. (That and that people from repressive regimes have a harder time publishing/attending conferences in the first place. So if there is any groundbreaking science being done it is less likely to be heard of by the rest of the world.)

Democracy may have something to do with it. An open and frank exchange of views is essential in science. But the social bias of the people involved in handing out prizes should be investigated as well. In subjective matters scientists are people, too.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.