America's Immigrant Laureates

All six U.S.-based Nobel Prize winners so far this year hail from outside the U.S., with five of the six coming from the U.K.

October 11, 2016

Of the six winners of Nobel Prizes affiliated with American universities so far this year, all are foreign born. Five were born in the United Kingdom, and the sixth was born in Finland -- a fact that prompted one policy wonk to tweet with tongue in cheek, "Damn immigrants taking Nobel Prizes away from Americans," adding a smiley-face emoticon.

All three winners of the physics prize were born in Britain but work at U.S. universities: Brown and Princeton Universities and the University of Washington, in Seattle. The two winners of the economics prize, from the U.K. and Finland, work at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, respectively. In chemistry, a Britain-born scientist based at Northwestern University shared the prize with two other researchers from France and the Netherlands. (See the table below for the list of winners. The prize in literature has not been awarded yet, while the honor in medicine went to a Japanese scientist affiliated with the Tokyo Institute of Technology. The Nobel Peace Prize, a different beast, went to the president of Colombia.)

“The Nobel Prizes this year demonstrate just how global higher education and research has become, and how it is truly global teams who tend to produce the groundbreaking results,” said Phil Baty, the rankings editor for the London-based Times Higher Education.

“But the 2016 Nobels should also serve as a serious warning to those politicians, most notably in the U.K., but also of course in the U.S. and elsewhere, who would seek to place major restrictions on the free movement of international talent,” Baty said. “This would be a serious blow to science, and in turn a serious blow to humanity. I am in little doubt, for example, that Britain’s pending exit from the European Union could be a terrible negative blow to the quality of our universities and the strength of our research environment.”

The representation of foreign-born individuals among U.S.-based Nobel winners may be especially high this year at (so far) 100 percent, but foreign-born individuals have historically been responsible for a sizable share of America's Nobel haul. An analysis by George Mason University's Institute for Immigration Research found that 42 percent of all Nobel Prizes awarded between 1901 and 2015 went to individuals working in the U.S., and that 31 percent of all U.S. Nobel laureates were born outside the U.S. -- a figure that's more than double the highest proportion of immigrants in the general population during these years.

“I think it’s another example of how America gains from immigration,” said Stuart Anderson, the executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, which through its research advocates for easing and expanding pathways for high-skilled immigration. The foundation's own analysis found that immigrants received 31 of the 78 Nobel Prizes won by Americans in chemistry, medicine and physics since 2000.

This year's award winners -- by definition a small and elite sample -- are disproportionately English or Scottish born, with five of the six U.S.-based winners hailing from the U.K. Asked about this, a spokesperson for the U.K.'s national academy for science, the Royal Society, said, “The U.K. is a world leader in science and has 73 Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry and medicine or physiology, second only to the U.S. and the most in Europe. Many of these winners have worked all over the world and in international collaborations. Science is a global endeavor that is at the heart of modern life throughout the world. It is inherently and increasingly international and collaborative.”

Three of the winners -- Duncan M. Haldane and David J. Thouless, in physics, and J. Fraser Stoddart, in chemistry -- are Royal Society fellows. Stoddart and Thouless are also elected members of the National Academy of Sciences, in the U.S., as is Oliver Hart, one of the winners in economics.

“The U.S. research enterprise's strength derives from its openness to embrace excellence no matter where its national origin,” said Marcia McNutt, the president of the National Academy of Sciences. “We can be proud of our ability to find, attract and nurture such excellence.”

2016 Nobel Prize Winners by Country of Birth and Institutional Affiliation

Prize Winners and Reason for Award Country of Birth Current Institutional Affiliation

Chemistry​: "for the design and synthesis of molecular machines"

Jean-Pierre Sauvage France University of Strasbourg
J. Fraser Stoddart U.K. Northwestern University
Bernard L. Feringa The Netherlands University of Groningen

Economics: "for their contributions to contract theory"​

Oliver Hart U.K. Harvard University
Bengt Holmström Finland Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Medicine: "for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy"

Yoshinori Ohsumi Japan Tokyo Institute of Technology

Physics: "for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter"​

David J. Thouless U.K. University of Washington
F. Duncan M. Haldane U.K.  Princeton University
J. Michael Kosterlitz U.K. Brown University


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