The first week in October is one of the biggest weeks in the international scientific calendar, as the winners of the Nobel Prizes are announced. This year has seen two Fellows of the Royal Society honoured with the ultimate accolade in science. It also highlights some profound changes in international science, in particular the emergence of China and Turkey as new scientific powers.
On Tuesday, it was announced that Professor Arthur McDonald FRS had won the Nobel in Physics, along with Takaaki Kajita from the University of Tokyo for research on neutrino ‘switching’, which has directly challenged the Standard Model of Particle Physics, our current best understanding of how the basic building blocks of matter and the four fundamental forces of the universe interact. Professor McDonald is one of many outstanding Canadian scientists to have been elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society, which is drawn from across the Commonwealth. In recent years the Society has increasingly focused on its role as the Commonwealth’s science academy, beginning with last year’s Commonwealth Science Conference in Bangalore, the first such event for nearly fifty years, and with a second being planned.
Professor Tomas Lindahl’s Nobel was the latest of several awards he has won for his groundbreaking work on how DNA repairs itself, which is fundamental to our understanding of cancer and inherited genetic disorders. He was awarded the Society’s prestigious Copley Medal in 2009, Royal Medal in 2007 and Croonian Lecture in 1996 for his outstanding achievements. Lindahl was born, brought up and educated in Sweden before pursuing his career in the US and the UK. His achievements underline one of the main reasons for the success of UK science – it is a highly attractive destination for the world’s best and brightest scientists, and must remain so if this success is to continue. (Incidentally, as the historian of science Jon Agar pointed out on Twitter, Professor Lindahl’s position as Emeritus Scientist at the Crick Institute means that the institute has won its first Nobel before the building has even opened).
Youyou Tu, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine for developing the antimalarial drug artemisinin, is the first China-based scientist and first Chinese woman to win a Nobel, despite having no medical degree, no doctorate, and having never worked overseas. China’s scientific development in recent years has been extraordinary – recent analysis in Nature rated it the second leading country for high-quality science output. China has been a priority for the Royal Society’s international engagement in recent years, beginning with Sir Paul Nurse’s visit in 2013, and continuing through the establishment of the Newton Fund, which provides £200m funding for UK-China scientific collaborations over the next five years, and in which the Society is a delivery partner.
Finally, Aziz Sancar’s award, which he won alongside Lindahl and Paul Modrich, represents Turkey’s first Nobel Prize in science. While Sancar has spent much of his career in the US, Turkey’s rapid scientific development in recent decades means there could be more Turkish Nobel Prizes to follow. Turkey prioritised research in the 1990’s and increased spending dramatically, making it one of the leading scientific nations in the Islamic world. The growing scientific links between the UK and Turkey – as demonstrated by the launch of the Newton-Katip Celebi Fund, a £40million UK government fund to promote bilateral cooperation, in which the Society is also a delivery partner, and the 2015 UK-Turkey Year of Science and Innovation – could be particularly timely.