U.S. Nobel Prize Winners Honored in D.C.

Winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine frrom left to right, James Rothman, Randy Schekman, and Thomas Südhof. | Chris Spitzer

Each year, the Embassy of Sweden in D.C. hosts the American Nobel Prize winners for the largest celebration of their achievements on this side of Stockholm. On November 19th, fresh from a meeting with President Barack Obama, the nine newly minted laureates shared stories of their discoveries and discussed the challenges faced by U.S. science for an attentive audience of policymakers, diplomats, academics, and the media.

Swedish Ambassador Bj'rn Lyrvall opened the symposium, remarking, "The United States holds the title of the greatest science nation on Earth." He noted that the new laureates bring the U.S. total to an even 350, almost three times as many as any other nation.

The symposium began with presentations on the research that led to the awards.

The winners in physiology or medicine, all AAAS members, were James Rothman, Randy Schekman, and Thomas S'dhof. They described how fundamental questions about the synchronization of organs within the body led them to unravel the basic machinery of communication within a cell through structures called vesicles ' tiny bubbles that carry signaling molecules.

Schekman discussed how this basic research set off a chain of discoveries that led to a new production method for human insulin, which is currently used to manufacture one-third of the world's supply. He emphasized that the investment in science "is crucial, particularly if one has no idea how it may be applied, as it inevitably will be applied in the private sector."

Martin Karplus and two AAAS members, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel, won the award for chemistry for developing computational models for the interaction between large molecules in complex chemical systems.

Levitt described the prize as "rather unusual" in that "it's the first prize in a whole new direction of work in which experimental work is complemented by computation work."

The remaining U.S. laureates were economists, Eugene Fama, Lars Peter Hansen, and Robert Shiller, who won for developing empirical models of asset prices, which help describe the behavior of financial markets. These are the markets that were at the heart of the recent financial crisis.

In a discussion moderated for the seventh straight year by AAAS CEO Alan Leshner, the laureates moved from describing the research itself to the problems they see in the current funding environment for science in the U.S.

Several laureates commented that shifts in the grant-making process have tended to favor only well-established researchers.

"A huge change in the last 30 years has been that people under 40 get almost no money, and people over 65 get lots of money," Levitt said. "Everyone here would agree that we made our discoveries when we were under 40."

S'dhof commented that some mid-career researchers have trouble finding funding to follow their startup package, and must often shift their time from managing research labs to writing grants.

Asked about the federal sequester, Schekman described it as "an unmitigated disaster that's done a great disservice to the science in this country."

Rothman acknowledged that the sequester "is bad for people of all ages," but it's only part of the difficulty.

"There's an underlying problem that's much more profound," he said, "which is the budget of the NIH has actually declined in purchasing power by 28% over the last seven to eight years."

Moreover, the laureates argued that allocation of funds into pre-determined projects is heading toward "bureaucrat-driven science," as Rothman put it.

"NSF gets responsive to political pressures," Hansen explained, "and money gets pulled away from basic research and gets put into directed projects that are often less efficient."

The end result of the funding problems, according to several laureates, is that the best scientists in the U.S. are moving to countries where support is currently more robust.

Schekman said that scientists who moved to the U.S. are now "returning to their countries because those countries, unlike ours, see the promise of investment in basic science. It's actual damage that's occurring right now."

Rothman put it bluntly. "I advise my students not to stay in the U.S.," he said. "Frankly, if I were 10 years younger that's exactly what I would do."

Recalling the remarks made by the Swedish Ambassador, the challenges enumerated by the laureates brought into question how long the U.S. can remain the "greatest science nation" without a recommitment to supporting science. The laureates closed on a more hopeful note, however, with advice for future scientists.

"Be really passionate about what you do. Care about it and do it for yourself. Then be persistent," Levitt said, and, importantly, "Don't give up if people tell you it's not worth doing."

Video of the full symposium is available below (note the presentation begins 12 minutes into the recording). The official Nobel Prize ceremony will take place on December 10th in Stockholm.