SINCE the first Nobel prizes were bestowed in 1901, American scientists have won a whopping 269 medals in the fields of chemistry, physics and physiology or medicine. This dwarfs the tallies of America’s nearest competitors, Britain (89), Germany (69) and France (31). However Claudius Gros of Goethe University Frankfurt, in Germany, believes a closer analysis shows that America’s lead is not quite what its seems.

In this analysis, just published in Royal Society Open Science, Dr Gros breaks the totals into Nobels earned per head of population in the year an award was made (see chart), to try to eliminate the effects of sheer size, and instead to examine productivity. Doing so also eliminates the effect of population growth. America’s population has risen, since 1901, by vastly more than those of the other three contenders, from 76m to 327m. (Britain’s has grown from 38m to 66m, France’s from 41m to 65m, and Germany’s from 56m to 83m.) Next, to account properly for the fact that individual prizes are often shared between more than one laureate, he assigned countries only their respective fractions of the accolade. If a scientist in France and one in Germany split the chemistry prize one year, each of their respective countries received just one half of the award. After these adjustments, American science came in not first, but third—behind Britain and Germany. 

Dr Gros also calculated changes in the rate at which Nobels were won by each of the four countries since the award’s inception. He found that, although the rate at which scientists in America won Nobels increased from 1901 to 1972, it then began to decline and has continued to do so ever since. Britain, overall the most successful gatherer of Nobels according to Dr Gros’s method, showed a big fall after 1980 but then an equally big recovery after 1990. For its mainland European rivals, however, it has been downhill all the way.