Mobility of Nobel Laureates

Published on

The Nobel Prize was the brainchild of Alfred Nobel (1833-1896), an industrialist, inventor, financier, and spare-time writer who made his fortune from the family dynamite manufacturing firm. The prize has been awarded each year since 1901 for outstanding achievement in various scientific disciplines (physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine, and, from 1969, economics), as well as for literature, and in recognition of efforts to promote peace. A prize may be shared among individual recipients, known as “laureates” (up to three per prize) and/or institutions (in the area of peace, for example). Since its inception, the prize has constantly illustrated the balance maintained between individuals (93% of them male) working in research teams and/or small intellectual groups that are spatially located and increasingly internationalized; lists of award-winners searched out by states; and a proclaimed desire by the Nobel committees (Swedish and Finnish) to transcend national particularities with a view to promoting peace and universal concord. Competition between scientific (sub-)disciplines and research teams has been replaced by assessment of the scientific and cultural standard and, implicitly, of the policies governing research, cultural production, and respect for human rights guaranteed by states. The ritual of the Nobel Prize award therefore honors the exceptional nature of the literary or scientific work, or diplomatic initiatives, offering them unparalleled fame. It also means that their recipients bear the responsibility of embodying certain universal principles.

Geopolitically, the Nobel Prize celebrates “the culmination of a gradual social process of selection, formation, and socialization from among the most eminent networks of research, letters, and politics” (Josepha Laroche). From 1945, the United States became the undisputed leader in this contest, on account of the extensive immigration of scientists and intellectuals fleeing wars, dictatorships, persecutions, and pogroms in Europe, Latin America, and Asia; a secondary reason was that American (or Anglo-Saxon) scientific journals and researchers were omnipresent in the process of assessment and research, confirming the appeal American universities have for the globalized scientific elite. Almost two-thirds of the 179 Nobel Prize winners in science between 1994 and 2017 held posts in the United States at the time their prize was awarded, while a quarter of laureates had worked in at least two different countries.

International mobility of Nobel prize winners in science, 1994-2017

Sources: OST (2018), La Position scientifique de la France dans le monde, 2000 -2015, Paris, Hcéres ;

Comment: The pie chart shows the number of Nobel prizes awarded between 1994 and 2017 by the country in which the universities of the prize-winning researchers are located. Out of 179 prizes, almost half were obtained in the United States; the United Kingdom and Japan, which come second, won far fewer. The first ten are therefore all countries in the Northern hemisphere. The arrows show the thirty or so researchers who migrated between starting their research and winning the Nobel Prize; most of them were attracted to the United States, which comes far ahead of the United Kingdom and Australia.

To quote this article

" Mobility of Nobel Laureates " World Atlas of Global Issues, 2018, [online], accessed on Mar 15 2021, URL:

back to top