This is the week when many of the Nobel Prizes will be announced, which calls for a look at what countries take home most, and perhaps why that is. Nine out of ten universities where most researchers who win the prestigious science prize are located are in the U.S. Most recent announcements: 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Nobel Prize in Physics to Higgs and Englert

Swedish researchers who have worked in the U.S. say the explanation is the American winning mentality. However, many Swedish university directors also believe Sweden is catching up. On 76 occasions during the past 50 years, American universities have hired researchers who have won a Nobel Prize in Medicine, compared to Sweden’s five, according to a review by daily Svenska Dagbladet. And this kind of domination is just as strong when it comes to prizes in physics and chemistry. The lead becomes even more evident, when it is noted that only one of the leading ten universities in the Nobel Prize context is located outside the U.S. At the top of the list is the eminent Harvard University. Swedish epidemiologist Hans-Olov Adami, member of the Kungliga vetenskapsakademin (the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences), and an adjunct professor at Harvard, explains that the success is a combination of tough admissions processes, continuously scrutinized research and teaching, and that the U.S. universities also have a lot of money.


Part financing
”It’s not possible to finance large-scale research in Sweden, at least not in my own field. A huge investment here means 10-20 million SEK ($1.5 – 3 million), while in the US, they talk about 600 million SEK ($93 million),” Adami says, and also points to American researchers being more driven and having a stronger will to succeed than those in Sweden and the rest of the world. Adami chooses to call the American secret ”passion for excellence”.
”This passion for excellence is curiously absent in the Swedish world of academia. There’s nothing genetic in this, rather something that has been created and kept by finding people who are willing to work in that spirit.”
Arvid Carlsson, Nobel Laureate in Medicine in 2000, agrees about the image of the American mentality, which according to him is the same pioneer spirit that has been maintained since the Europeans arrived on the continent. On top of that, Americans are also more pragmatic in their collaboration with industry, they are more goal-oriented and less thoughtful in their research, he adds.

Part getting things done
”They just don’t talk around things as much, but rather says let’s do this. The advantage then is that they get things done, the disadvantage is that things sometimes are done a little too hastily.”
Associate professor of economics at Kungliga tekniska högskolan and at Institutet för näringslivsforskning, Jannis Angelis, has done research at Harvard, Stanford, and MIT. He likens the move back to Sweden to a cold shower. First, researchers in the U.S. don’t have to spend their better part on teaching, secondly the universities there are better organized and less hierarchical. ”There are professionals at every stage. If you sit at a meeting in Stanford and you have a logical explanation to what you want to do, people buy it right away. At Swedish universities it’s more about which position you have than how driven you are,” he says. Anders Hamsten is the director at the Karolinska Institute, and doesn’t agree: Karolinska is not hierarchical, neither is it poorly organized. ”The university I lead has a flat organization,” he says. ”Our goal is to focus more of our resources on research and the group leaders who deal with research,” he says. When asked if there’s a lack of passion for excellence in Sweden, Hamsten says: ”Not at the Karolinska Institute. It is in our strategies to recruit international top researchers from all over the world. Our ambition is to focus on excellent research that is paradigm-shifting, just the kind of research that is awarded with a Nobel Prize.” But Kungliga tekniska högskolan’s director Peter Gudmundsson admits they have much to learn from the U.S. and that the university therefore collaborates scientifically with University of Illinois. Meanwhile, he believes Sweden is racing to catch up. ”We’ve had a good focus on research the past years, but it takes time for a discovery to culminate in a Nobel Prize,” he says. ”Within 20 years, we ought to have more prizes.”

Sweden's universities are, however, ranked high in the world: Sweden has five universities among top 200
What the different Swedish universities focus on:
KTH (Kungliga tekniska högskolan or the Royal): Informaiton technology and energy/environment
Göteborg Unviersity and Chalmers: Transport and marine biology
Uppsala and Lund Universities: Life science (which covers a number of disciplines such as biology, mathematics, chemistry, and medicine).
The Karolinska Institute: Life science
Stockholm University: Natural sciences and service development.

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