Immigration and the Nobel Science Prizes

It’s hard to take the current Administration’s stance on immigration seriously.   Their policies are deliberately cruel, as in family separations, and clearly motivated by bigotry.  In response, people have pointed to the 80 million US immigrants and their huge contributions to the country.   This includes the ancestors of many of the people in the Administration itself, such as the president’s grandparents and wives.

But let me do a quantitative take on this.   The most prestigious prizes in the world are the Nobel science prizes, those in Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology or Medicine.   These even outweigh the other Nobels: Peace, Literature, and the new Economics.   The Peace choices are often terrible, like Kissinger and Obama; Economics is not as important a field as the others; and the Literature awards are usually obscure.   But the science Nobels have been for consistently important work for over a century, and are about the only technical prizes anyone knows about.

[Irresistible side story: Brian Schmidt was visiting his grandmother in Fargo  North Dakota, when was stopped by the TSA in the airport.  They saw a solid black disk in the X-ray of his carry-on.  “Sir, what’s this?” they asked.  “A half pound of gold.”  “Where did you get it?”  “It was given to me by the King of Sweden.” “Oh really?”  “Yes, for discovering the acceleration of the expansion of the universe.”  Physics award, 2011.  “Yeah?  So why are you in Fargo?”]

So how has immigration contributed to winning science Nobels?   For each laureate, we can identify the country where their work was done and whether the laureate is a native of that country or was born elsewhere.   For the top ten work countries, the split between native and immigrant looks like this:

The data comes from this List of Nobel Laureates by Country, but each laureate was only given one country where the work was done.   The full list and charts are in this spreadsheet: Science Nobel Prizes and Countries.

There have been 609 Prizes awarded to individuals between 1904 and 2017 inclusive.  Three people have won two: Marie Curie, John Bardeen, and Frederick Sanger. 32 countries in total have gotten Prizes for work done there.  Switzerland appears to get the most per capita, followed by Sweden and Denmark.

The US dominates the list with 271 of them, 45% of the total.  This isn’t just because the US has a much larger population than the others.  It only got 26 prizes before 1950, but then Congress poured money into the NSF, NIH, and other Big Science programs, and it won 245 more, 54% of that total.  That’s still true in the 21st century – the US has 77 out of 142 since 2000, which is still 54%.  Only 2 native Americans have done their work elsewhere.

What’s even more striking is that 79 of the US prizes come from immigrants.  More immigrants have won Nobels for work done in the US than for any entire country, except the UK.  The UK has 82 and Germany 72.

So where did those immigrants come from?

                            Birth Countries for US Laureates
Region Country Number each
Europe (41)
Germany 14
Italy 6
Austria 5
Hungary 3
Netherlands, Poland, Norway 2
Czech Republic, Ireland, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, France, Lithuania 1
Anglosphere (16)
Canada 8
United Kingdom 6
Australia, New Zealand 1
Other (22)
China 6
Japan 4
India 3
Russia, Ukraine, Mexico, Israel, South Africa, Taiwan, Turkey, Egypt, Korea 1

Looking more closely at the European immigrants, we find that 18 out of 41 of them, about half, were driven out by mid-20th century persecution by Nazis, and by Italian and Spanish fascists.  16 of those were driven out by anti-Semitism, and 2 were not, Max Delbruck and Severo Ochoa. Europe’s loss was the US’s gain.

Immigrants from the Anglosphere would have had a much easier time transitioning.  But Canada in particular lost a lot of talent – it lost 8 people to the US while only getting 9 itself, and 4 of those were also immigrants.  More native Canadians have won Nobels in the US than in Canada itself.

Immigrants from other parts of the world would have had difficulty getting into the US before the 1960s, when immigration rules were greatly relaxed.   Notice what a range of countries they come from, many of which would be considered undesirable.

The current Administration is explicitly denying entry to those fleeing persecution, and trying to eliminate immigration from non-white parts of the world.  If it had kept out the 22 from the Other parts of the world, and the 18 that were fleeing European persecution, that’s 40 of the world’s leading scientists.  Fleeing and non-white immigrants have won more Nobels for the US than any whole country has won, except the UK and Germany.  That’s more than all of France.  The Administration’s anti-immigration policies will damage US science even at this very top level.

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