It’s as though the Nobel Prize committee were running a ‘Save British Science’ campaign. In the last two days, two Noble Prizes have been announced, both to UK scientists. Test-tube baby pioneer Robert Edwards FRS was awarded the prize for medicine. Andre Geim FRS and Konstantin Novoselov won the prize for physics for their work on the wunder-material Graphene (the thinnest and strongest stuff in the universe).
The announcements show two sides of science policy. Geim and Novoselov are both supported by grants from the Royal Society. Geim is a Research Professor and Novoselov is a University Research Fellow, both at the University of Manchester. Geim argues that the Royal Society’s long-term support has allowed him to take conceptual and disciplinary leaps that would otherwise have been impossible. Novoselov, at 36, becomes the youngest physics Nobel laureate for more than 30 years. As well as Graphene, his research funding has allowed him (with Geim) to work on what they call ‘Gecko tape’, a superglue that mimics the feet of a Gecko. Novoselov also represented the UK at the Royal Society’s 2008 Frontiers of Science meeting in Germany , organised to build collaboration between outstanding young scientists in both nations.
The Edwards story is more complicated. In 1971, seven years before Louise Brown became the first IVF baby, Edwards was turned down for funding by the Medical Research Council on the grounds that the research following concerns about ethics and safety. His work was privately supported until 1978 (see this for an exhaustive account).
Edwards’s clinical research had a clear and immediate impact, and has since transformed the lives of many parents who would have previously resigned themselves to childlessness. Geim and Novoselov’s work is largely curiosity-driven, but is already revolutionising the way that electronics firms are imagining the next generation of transistors, touchscreens and batteries.
It is a mistake to read too much into the histories of Nobel laureates. They are prizeworthy precisely because they are exceptional. Nor should policy be skewed towards (literally) picking winners. But Nobels do tell us something about the environment from which they emerge and, in the UK, this environment is currently under threat.