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Business News/ News / World/  How US replaced Europe as Nobel Prize magnet
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How US replaced Europe as Nobel Prize magnet

A series of reforms in higher education and research helped US academics dominate the prestigious prize, albeit at the cost of rising inequality, finds a study

General view of the Blue Hall, with the Table of Honour (C), during the 2015 Nobel prize award banquet in Stockholm City Hall. (FILE PHOTO: REUTERS)Premium
General view of the Blue Hall, with the Table of Honour (C), during the 2015 Nobel prize award banquet in Stockholm City Hall. (FILE PHOTO: REUTERS)

In the early 20th century, Nobel laureates were most likely to have German or French academic history. Today, the US dominates the CVs of scholars who win the coveted prize. What has changed in a hundred years?

A study by W. Bentley MacLeod and Miguel Urquiola of Columbia University describes how several higher education reforms in the US led to increased competition and revolutionized the quality of research.

The National Bureau of Economic Research working paper says that in the 1800s, a majority of the American universities had religious trustees who would often discard academic merit over religious affiliations. Early colleges did not prioritize trained or specialized personnel. Practical courses such as business and engineering were not taught.

The system forced rote learning, which was not the case in Europe, where the post-Protestant Reformation states generously funded their universities and invested in faculty.

Early US universities failed to cater to the rising demand of business, law, sciences, and engineering. As industrialization made these subjects relevant, the gaps between the demand and supply of the courses began widening.

But in the 1870s, Cornell and Johns Hopkins Universities showed they could attract students by offering specialized courses in a wide range of areas, the authors find. Harvard and Columbia followed suit by setting up specialized departments for arts and science, and created professional schools.

This transition was helped by private donations and public funding. Academic journals were created to record research output, while higher pay, better labs, and reduced teaching load helped professors focus more on quality research.

The number of colleges in the US swelled thereafter, unlike Europe. However, the authors also note that quality education in the US came along with growing inequality, as only a handful of universities received a disproportionate share of the federal funds.

Also read: Why Does the U.S. Have the Best Research Universities?

Snap Fact features new and interesting reads from the world of research

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Updated: 10 Feb 2021, 09:02 AM IST
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