Tuesday, October 03, 2006

US dominates Nobel Prizes in Science

Americans Andrew Fire and Craig Mello won the 2006 Nobel Prize for Medicine last night for their discovery of how to "silence" genes, which has opened potential new paths for treating disease.

The discoveries of Professor Fire and Professor Mello offered "exciting possibilities" for use in gene technology, said the Nobel Assembly of Stockholm's Karolinska Institute.

Professor Fire, 47, and Professor Mello, 45, showed through experiments with nematode worms that a form of ribonucleic acid, or RNA - the cellular material that transmits genetic information - can switch off targeted genes in a process known as RNA interference (RNAi). They published their findings in 1998.

This technology has become a key area of research for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, which view it as a promising new way to tackle a range of conditions.

Today, Americans John C. Mather and George F. Smoot won the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics for work that helped shed light on the beginning of the universe and the origin of galaxies and stars.

The scientists were awarded the prize "for their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm said.

Their work was based on measurements that were done with the help of the NASA-launched COBE satellite in 1989. The information from the satellite helped provide increased support for the Big Bang theory of the beginning of the universe.

Europe floundering

In a recent report THE FUTURE OF EUROPEAN UNIVERSITIES: Renaissance or decay? from the London-based think-tank, the Centre for European Reform notes: "Between 1901 and 1950, 73 per cent of Nobel Prize winners were based in what is now the EU. Between 1951 and 2000, the share dropped to 33 per cent, while in the period from 1995 to 2004, the figure was down to just 19 per cent."

The report's authors Richard Lambert, head of the Confederation of British Industry and formerly editor of the Financial Times and Nick Butler, BP Group Vice President.say that the important difference between Europe and just about every other developed economy is that private finance plays a very modest role in its university funding. Thus public funding for higher education represents about 1 per cent of GDP for the 25 EU countries; roughly the same proportion as in the US. But private funding in the US amounts to a further 1.4 per cent of GDP and the average in countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is 0.8 per cent, compared with only 0.1 per cent for Europe.

Given their fiscal constraints, all the big countries in Europe will sooner or later have to introduce tuition fees. The UK has started the process and Germany is moving in the same direction. The political challenge in France will be enormous.

Third, European countries are going to have to become much more selective in the way they allocate resources. There are nearly 2,000 universities in the EU, most of which aspire to conduct research and offer postgraduate degrees. By contrast, fewer than 250 US universities award postgraduate degrees and fewer than 100 are recognised as research intensive. No wonder the US dominates the league tables of the world's best research universities, given this concentration of resources.

In a review of the report, the Wall Street Journal says that from Plato's school of philosophy to the medieval universities of Paris and Bologna to the unrivalled German research institutions of the early 20th century, European higher education has an illustrious history. But in the here and now the Continent is sliding into educational obscurity.

Only two European universities, Cambridge and Oxford, make the top 10 in Shanghai Jiao Tong University's global rating system; the rest are in the US Of the top 50, nine are in Europe. The US isn't the only competition. A list of undergraduate schools attended by the world's top computer scientists includes the Indian Institute of Technology, National Taiwan University and Seoul National University.

According to the CER report, there are twice as many European students in the US as there are Americans studying in Europe. And while Americans tend to take a semester abroad of undergraduate art or history (with a minor in clubbing), European students go to America for full-degree programs, at higher levels, and with a greater emphasis on science and technology.
Their diagnosis of the problem is straightforward. With private universities still unusual, and private funding in the form of either donations or tuition payments uncommon, most European schools are almost entirely dependent on the state.

One result is micromanagement. In Italy, for example, cabinet-level approval can be required to appoint a professor. In some German regions, meanwhile, trivial expenses must be approved by state bureaucrats.

Many European universities can't select their students but have to accept anyone who meets standard criteria, usually minimum exam scores. As education is free, students -- particularly in countries, like France, with high youth unemployment -- tend to take their sweet time to graduate, if they do at all.

Drop-out rates are about 40% across the EU, compared with one-third among OECD members.

Universities are also starved of cash. Public funding for higher education, in the EU as in the U.S., represents about 1% of GDP. In the U.S., though, private financing adds another 1.4% of GDP, while in the EU it adds only 0.1%.

Fixing the problem is the tough part. Messrs. Lambert and Butler suggest more independence for universities, as well as better incentives to private giving. Tuition payments would also be a boon, they point out, not least because they would transform students from wards of the state into customers -- and thus make them far less likely to tolerate substandard teaching.

The Wall Street Journal says that addressing the shortcomings will take a change in mindsets as much as anything concrete. Last month, 10,000 Greek students marched in protest, a few hurling gasoline bombs at police. Their grievance? Legislation that would impose a fixed time period to earn a degree, ending the widespread Greek phenomenon of the "eternal student." They also objected to a proposed constitutional amendment (yes, that's what it would take) to allow private universities.

In the meantime, Greece has the largest net outflow of students among all 25 EU members, with some 9% leaving every year. Without change, the Journal says that Greece can probably say good-bye to more of its brightest young people every year. The same can be said for European universities as a whole.

More than 50% of European students who get their doctoral degrees in the US, remain there.