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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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February 22, 2011

Science and Revolution

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Posted by Derek

GIven everything that's happening across North Africa and the Middle East, I thought a quick geopolitical note might be in order. This is very far from being a world politics blog, but there is a connection to science.

Specifically, it's been notable for some time how under-performing these regions of the world are, scientifically. I last wrote about this topic here, with a link to this map. That's ten-year-old data, but the main changes would be shifts among the bigger players. From roughly the western border of India over to the Atlantic ocean, things haven't changed much - the only country in that swath that's made a serious R&D mark is Israel.

In some cases, that's perfectly understandable. No one expects a country at Afghanistan's level of development to have much of a research culture; they've got plenty of other priorities. But you hit some pretty gaudy GDP/per capita numbers when you cross the oil-rich regions, and that money has not been plowed into science and technology. That's in spite of the funding that Saudi Arabia, for one, has thrown into various King-This and Prince-That institutions. Maybe they're going for more applied training - I absolutely cannot recall seeing any notable research result out of the Saudi system. Examples welcomed in the comments, if there are any. And the other oil-rich states are even further out in the wilderness, scientifically. The UAE? Kuwait? You'd have to do some real digging to find much of anything, as far as I can tell. Science, research, and invention have just not been priorities for these places, and changing that isn't easy.

Then you hit countries like Egypt, which are in the broad and sad category of "countries that really should be doing better than they are". I'd put Iran on that list, too. Scientifically, nations in this category have some infrastructure, but it's usually not enough to produce anything noteworthy. Their expatriate scientists and engineers, though, have flourished. There's clearly a lot of talent going to waste inside these places. Algeria and Morocco, too? They don't look so bad, though, when opposed to the next category, the Syrias and Libyas of the world. There's some GDP in these places (although nowhere near as much as there could be), but scientifically, they're absolutely off the map.

So now we get to asking why this should be so. Some of it can be put down to development, as mentioned above, but even the countries in this region that are better developed still aren't making much of a mark. I realize that I may be coming across as culturally insensitive here, because I'm assuming that R&D is the sort of thing that any society with enough money and talent would choose to do. But I'm willing to defend that assumption. I think that these activities really are a key part of a modern economy, and provide a productive outlet for a lot of brainpower. Instead, we have countries that are too poor to even think about these things (Afghanistan), too occupied in keeping the boot pressed down (Syria), several that have decided to sit back and enjoy their money (the oil sheikdoms), and a few that would like to do this sort of thing but aren't getting so much out of their efforts, like Iran.

And that brings us to the volatile topic of religion. Most of the region we're talking about is Islamic, of course. And while it led the world for a good while in mathematics, astronomy, and other sciences, it's also been clear for a long time that it later adopted a different attitude towards homegrown advancements in science and engineering. And this could well have something to do with the religious character of society. The pursuit of secular knowledge can, in some religious environments, seem like at best a distraction from more important matters, and at worst an active source of evil and discord. The present-day countries have all sorts of varying amounts and styles of religious observance, but this is always going to be a factor to consider.

And now we have revolutions ongoing in a lot of these places, and you have to assume that there are more to come - if not right now, then eventually. My own interest in Iran leads me to think, for example, that the lid is going to come off there at some point - and the longer the wait is, the worse the boilover will be. The question that everyone has, though, is what will replace the former regimes, once the lids have blown off? I would like, naturally, to see an Egyptian Republic (for example) that has a chance to get its act together. But that's not going to be easy, to put it very mildly. There are a lot of problems to solve, and a shortage of people who've had to opportunity to try solving them under the former regime of the Big Boss Leader. I fear that the most likely result is the advent of a new boss - who may be wearing a uniform, or robes, or even a nice suit, but who has the same ideas in mind as the last guy. I very much hope I'm wrong about that. Doors are opening; let's hope that many of them don't just slam shut again.

Comments (40) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Current Events


1. Anonymous on February 22, 2011 10:29 AM writes...

No Reformation, no Enlightenment. They missed out on some pretty important events that drove the intellectual development of Christendom. They stagnated; we caught up, and then some.

What Went Wrong, by Princeton historian Bernard Lewis, explores this in more detail and sophistication than I can in a comment on a blog post.

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2. Richard on February 22, 2011 10:45 AM writes...

Just to forestall a few of the inevitable responses like #1, let's look a bit more at Iran.

Despite grinding poverty, sanctions, etc, they consistently produce kids who beat the US at the International Math Olympiad and similar competitions, many of whom leave the country for graduate training in the West and go on to become world-class scientists.

How do they do it? The same way we once did: by identifying talented kids early and separating them out into enriched tracks.

A country with per capita GDP of $4,500 can't support competitive research universities, but they do the cheap part quite well.

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3. Mark on February 22, 2011 11:29 AM writes...

Some of the reasons that research is so lacking in these countries is for practical reasons too. I have a grad school friend who is a professor in Saudi Arabia. He often mentions how hard it is to get even the most basic reagents. He often spends a lot of his time making things from scratch that in most Western Nations you can have delivered from Aldrich the next day.

That certainly can't help.


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4. MaynardTKrebbs on February 22, 2011 11:31 AM writes...

I'd have to agree with both #1 and #2 points. It's unfortunate that a large portion of humanity is minimally engaged in scientific research. It is unconscionable that the wealthier regimes (like Saudi Arabia) do little to promote expansion of intellect. This has been a common theme throughout history and is only rectified through revolution.

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5. lukas on February 22, 2011 11:42 AM writes...

Despite grinding poverty, sanctions, etc, they consistently produce kids who beat the US at the International Math Olympiad and similar competitions, many of whom leave the country for graduate training in the West and go on to become world-class scientists.

...never to return. That's the real problem of these countries: their best and brightest generally want to get the hell out, and I find it hard to blame them, given the circumstances. That makes it hard to sustain a decent academic environment.

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6. SP on February 22, 2011 11:53 AM writes...

Posts like this are why I have trouble reconciling your support for science with your support for the Republican party, who want to cut $1B from the NIH, defund the US contribution to the IPCC, and pass laws decreeing that global warming and evolution aren't real.

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7. Iridium on February 22, 2011 11:55 AM writes...

With regard to the Saudi-like, oil rich nations, I have heard that they actually provide funding to some of the basic research labs here in the US. For instance, I have heard a number of times that the Stoltz group at Caltech receive monies from Middle Eastern countries for research activities. I do not know what restrictions or guidances come with that money, but assuming it is true it would go against the notion that these countries are not involved in R&D. They may not do the work at home, but they're putting their money to work for science elsewhere.

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8. luysii on February 22, 2011 12:04 PM writes...

Believe it or not, in the 70s there was oilfield exploration in Montana, and Billings even had a Petroleum Club for those involved, complete with good steaks and hard drinking. The oilmen were a lively and very intelligent bunch.

One Texas transplant really surprised me with what he said about Libya. He thought the people there were great (I was expecting some sort of racisim from him), and that you were far safer there than you were on the streets of New York (this was the 70s remember). He told me to ignore the mouthings of Colonel Goofy (which is what the oilmen all called him behind his back).

It's hard to know what will transpire in that sad country, but the desire for freedom does not appear to be a construct of dead white males, western civilization etc. etc. or somehow alien to Islam.

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9. bad wolf on February 22, 2011 12:24 PM writes...

SP reminds me of every responder on the NYTimes website, where every op/ed that is not fawning over the Democrats is blasted with everything that has gone every Republican has ever said or done.

Let me propose a possibility: Perhaps both parties share the blame for the current state of affairs? Nah, easier to demonize the 'other side' and continue status quo...

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10. SP on February 22, 2011 12:57 PM writes...

Obama's proposal is a 3% increase for the NIH budget this year. Obama is a Democrat. The House Republicans just passed a budget to cut it by 4.3% ($1.3B) The House Republicans are Republicans.
bad wolf reminds me of every pundit on the Sunday morning talk shows who point out a disagreement on an issue of fact and throw up their hands, saying, "Who can tell who's right? Both sides must be to blame, and the answer must be somewhere in the middle."

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11. Hap on February 22, 2011 1:03 PM writes...

9: If freedom is your party's dominant theme, but it applies it consistently only to those people or things it happens to like, whose fault is that, exactly?

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12. pete on February 22, 2011 1:17 PM writes...

Regarding science, revolution & culture-clash:
As an aside, I wonder why it is that revolutionary biologists - i.e., naturalists - not physicians/anatomists/physiologists - have tended to come from European & Japanese cultures, but not so much from other populous and ancient cultures (China, India, Middle East/Arabic, etc) ? Just a thought.

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13. AR on February 22, 2011 1:50 PM writes...

I believe DL hit on it precisely - a thriving scientific community implies a thriving intellectual class. Intellectualism probably is not in the best interest of these totalitarian regimes such as exists in Saudi Arabia.

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14. Anon on February 22, 2011 2:27 PM writes...

There seem to be a lot of religious Jewish people who have no problems with creativity....

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15. Virgil on February 22, 2011 2:30 PM writes...

What's that you say? Lots of income from natural resource extraction, mis-spent by corrupt governments, coupled with an over-arching religiosity. Are we talking about the US?

Add in the "defense" budget (more than the next 20 nations on the list combined!) and it's any wonder that science happens at all in this country!

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16. MIMD on February 22, 2011 2:33 PM writes...


I'd have to agree with both #1 and #2 points. It's unfortunate that a large portion of humanity is minimally engaged in scientific research. It is unconscionable that the wealthier regimes (like Saudi Arabia) do little to promote expansion of intellect.

In fact, in my experience the intellect and, at least as important, honesty levels were far higher at King Faisal Specialist Hospital's Research Centre in Riyadh than at an Ivy like Yale School of Medicine, including some folks involved in the now-defunct Human Genome Misppropriation - er, Diversity Project.

Long opinionated story - bon lecteur.

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17. Mike g on February 22, 2011 2:33 PM writes...

Almost all commodity rich countries suffer from the same disease which hinders R&D development and all the other social/political developments we consider necessary: THE COMMODITY ITSELF.

No innovation is needed to sustain the state, no apple ipod factories required to pay the soldier's salaries.

The vast wealth bubbles out of the ground and all you need do is put a fence around it and pay the guards.

Millions of Egyptians work in the surrounding oil fields of their neighbors. You can argue Egypt is (was?) a puppet state funded by oil and the USA.

You can also note the United States has become an oligarchy for similar reasons. It also is shunning R&D because of the vast wealth bubbling out of the Federal Reserve. Money is flowing to companies specializing in risky financial schemes because they offer enormous upside with almost no downside so long as you use OPM (other people’s money.) Make a quick killing and become ‘set’ within a year, and if it fails, walk away unscathed and set up another shop.

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18. hibob on February 22, 2011 2:54 PM writes...

I know a few sharp people who went to work at a "king such & such" institute (KAUST). While it officially was opened in 2009, most of the faculty wasn't there until fall 2010. Even with a $10 billion endowment, butts need to be in chairs for more than 6 months to crank out publications.

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19. luysii on February 22, 2011 3:36 PM writes...

In these troubled times, any good news is welcome. All will be well soon as Libya is a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council --

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20. GreedyCynicalSelfInterested on February 22, 2011 3:44 PM writes...

@15 The United States tried to be isolationist before, like after WWI, or the Great War, but that did not work. After WWII we had troops permanently stationed in Europe and lo and behold, there has been no European war since. We have troops in the Middle East because of the first Gulf War. We, the US, is entangled in other peoples' messes becaue no one else is capable of fixing it. After every foreign involvement the pattern has been to leave troops there just in case. What other country is capable of this?

I don't like the cost in blood and treasure but what is a realistic alternative?

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21. Rebell on February 22, 2011 4:01 PM writes...

Two points I would like to make:
First research is a luxury, a country lookig for food will not look for inventions. Many countries from western borders of India to Atlantic are doing something but still not good enough to enjoy this luxury completely.
Absence of democracies sure is another reason for no accountabilities for money spent where and why?

For countries like egypt, we can only hope and wish luck. `Freedom from´is not as important as to know ´freedom for´.

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22. biotechchap on February 22, 2011 4:19 PM writes...

guys you are forgeting one thing about the oil rich nations, that until there oil wells dont dry up they dont have the necessity to invent, as it is the mother of invention. They can always buy from and also hire services of americans to defend there interests.

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23. CMCguy on February 22, 2011 4:20 PM writes...

How does the US rate "assuming that R&D is the sort of thing that any society with enough money and talent would choose to do"? You are correct in a sense I think historically Science was more of a luxury activity of elites/wealthy but was still only practiced, open to or supported by a minority and was either ignored or distrusted by most of society. The US, through key founding Fathers perhaps, probably resulted in Science becoming more democratic, accessible and probably innovative however now-a-days both the money and the talent trends are to flee sciences as perhaps reflection of our own priorities and not a defined choice.

When I look at most the countries mentioned it appears not about potential capabilities as more significant lacking in education opportunities, middle classes and jobs as the inhibitors. Many countries educational infrastructures do poor jobs of cultivating much beyond basics (intentionally?) or overtly send best and brightest overseas. There is a catch-22 in that why devote yourself to science if both no good homeland options and "ruling classes" have more demand for business/manager types.

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24. Kismet on February 22, 2011 6:28 PM writes...

19. you really, really do justice to your name. If you call the mass murder the US committed in Iraq and many other wars "helping", you cannot be helped.

Tell me if I got any numbers wrong:
Iraq+Afghanistan will together cost the US something like three thousand billion dollars.
At least 100k civilians dead in Iraq, or was it up to a million? (as per e.g. the lancet review)
>10k US soldiers dead.
Ten or twenty million civilians affected.
Billions of dollars lost in Iraq corruption scandals.
Still not much of an improvement.

Now consider the revolutions that are happening now in the Arab world. Their cost to the US tax payer is minuscule and civilian losses are also rather small over there. So just fuck US intervention, how about educating people instead so THEY THEMSELVES will overthrow their regimens?

On topic, I would note that (religiously motivated) treatment of women as second class citizens is probably also one of the key problems.

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25. Sean on February 22, 2011 9:00 PM writes...


"He thought the people there were great (I was expecting some sort of racisim from him)...."

Did the irony of this statement smack anyone else in the head?

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26. oMan on February 22, 2011 9:29 PM writes...

#19: agree. See also Paul Collier's "The Bottom Billion" which diagnoses dysfunctional polities. One of them is the resource-rich country where one ruling class shoots its way to power in order to control the resource extraction and pocket the proceeds, until succeeded by another gang with bigger guns.
#23: anybody who believes that crap from Lancet on 600K+ war dead in Iraq is a complete dope. On the other hand, you're correct, these evil regimes which oppress women deserve to go down. And if their own people bring them down without USA having to waste more blood and treasure, works for me. If the upshot is they all starve or get crushed by the next regime, well, so it goes.

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27. Luysii on February 22, 2011 10:20 PM writes...

#25 Sean

Well if you'd driven from Philly to San Antonio in August '68 on your way into the service and had the owner of the first motel you stopped at, see your Pa. plates and ask what they thought of Governor Wallace 'up thea', seen separate entrances for Blacks in a restaurant 20 miles south of DC, then driven through Meridian Mississippi, then stopped to eat in Cameron Louisiana and seen Wop Salad on the menu, you might have expected most folks you met with a southern drawl to have a smidge of racism. No irony intended was intended, but that's the way the world was back then.

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28. Alibaba on February 22, 2011 10:42 PM writes...

#24 Kismet

An article for you:

Exhumation of Mass Graves in Iraq: Considerations for Forensic Investigations, Humanitarian Needs, and the Demands of Justice

1. Eric Stover;
2. William D. Haglund, PhD;
3. Margaret Samuels, CSW

JAMA. 2003;290(5):663-666. doi: 10.1001/jama.290.5.663

Look it up.

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29. Anonymous on February 22, 2011 11:08 PM writes...

"How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy.

The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity.

The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property – either as a child, a wife, or a concubine – must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.

Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen: all know how to die but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome."

---Winston Churchill, 1899

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30. Anonymous on February 23, 2011 12:00 AM writes...

As someone who works in corporate R&D in Saudi Arabia, I can confirm #3's comment that the sourcing of chemicals is a major obstacle to research. If you can get your reagent in three months, it's considered a blazing-fast delivery time! (most of the hold up is in customs) I even saw a young scientist carry out a short 12-month project, where her only major update after six months was "Well, we have our chemicals now!"

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31. Cartesian on February 23, 2011 5:31 AM writes...

I do not think that these countries will honestly help to improve the place of scientific intelligence in the world.

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32. Anatoly on February 23, 2011 7:37 AM writes...

Oil-rich countries ruled by hereditary dictators have no reason to invest in anything that will increase the education level of the masses, as it will speed their demise. Educated people don`t like kings.

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33. Rick on February 23, 2011 8:45 AM writes...

Derek, your statement " hit some pretty gaudy GDP/per capita numbers when you cross the oil-rich regions, and that money has not been plowed into science and technology." got me thinking about the relationship between monetary wealth and scientific/technological achievement. Using two generally accepted measures of wealth and scientific/technology achievement (GDP-based measures and number of science Nobel laureates, respectively), I was surprised to see that there was virtually no relationship between a country's overall GDP and their productivity in raising Nobel laureates (Nobels per capita). I tried other ways of correlating scientific prowess with wealth, but so far it's very hard to see that monetary wealth (as defined by economists) correlates with intellectual achievement (defined as Nobel laureate production). Am I the only person to find that surprising?

In case anyone's wondering, the countries most productive at spawning Nobel laureates are (in order):  Ireland, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Austria, United Kingdom, Germany and Israel.

Sir Paul McCartney said money can't buy you love. Perhaps it can't buy you intellectual achievement either.

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34. qwedc on February 23, 2011 9:13 AM writes...

[IMHO] I would never expect to see a link of Battle of Leapno in this very nice blog. The main problem of Middle East started from the printing press technology; which could not develop at the same time interval. The medieval Middle Eastern enlightment was in an era where all the antic Greek books were constantly translated into Middle Eastern languages and having been followed by the intellectual additions and discoveries through these knowledge. Same stroy could not carried on around 15th and 16th century where European culture rose their own enlightment from these Middle Eastern and antic Greek works and this was due to the fact that (as Derek indicated) Ottomans could not enter and integrate into the Western European culture. If it was possible, all the Middle Eastern countries would follow French revolution and so (whereas balkan countries tried to maked it but with the involvement of Russian Empire, it was not real). If it was possible there have been never a clash of civilization stories or sth like that [IMHO].

The good and continous scientific research starts from starch. In most of those countries, people even do not know how to read.

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35. Anonymous on February 23, 2011 10:18 AM writes...

The country order of _scientific_ Nobels per capita is quite different at this blog

Switzerland, Sweden, UK, USA, Denmark, Austria, Norway, New Zealand, Germany, Australia

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36. Sean on February 23, 2011 10:51 AM writes...


Prejudice is preconceived notions.

You assumed that because this guy was a Texan, he was racist.

Pot meet kettle.

I was just pointing out the irony as I thought it was funny.

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37. luysii on February 23, 2011 11:24 AM writes...

Sean: quite true. But we navigate our way through life with preconceived notions about people built from past experience. By your criterion, the assumption that each chemist you meet at a seminar/convention is probably intelligent is a prejudice.

The great thing Montana taught me was to treat everyone the same when meeting them. In the east you were immediately pigeonholed by where you went to school. Not so out there. Also in the 70s there were plenty Montanans with relatively little education (because of the depression) who were highly intelligent. There aren't many folks out there to begin with, so you had plenty of time to get to know people you'd met. The Texan was just one example of the learning process for me.

Only in the east, do people tell you what they're 'really like' when you meet them, because they usually have just one shot at forming an impression.

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38. Rick on February 23, 2011 3:05 PM writes...

@ 35:
Thanks for checking. You would think that this would be an easy thing to calculate, but apparently there's more than one way to do this. I will see if I can reproduce how the site you gave does their calculation. One difference might be that they only went back to 1945, whereas I included all Nobel Prizes. One major problem with any approach lies in finding a sensible number to use for the "capita" part (i.e. what is the population you enter, do you enter current population? average population over the time period, look at the Nobel's per capita for each year and then average that?).

Once I figure out how they got their numbers, I will see if it correlates with GDP, GDP per capita, GDP per square mile or some other economic measure, which is the point I'm trying to make in my post. So far, I remain unable to find good evidence (i.e. not easily disproved by multiple counter-examples) that more money, by itself, gives more Nobel-calibre achievement.

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39. Old Fart Science Teacher on February 24, 2011 9:46 PM writes...

We put ourselves into this mess. The state of science education in the US is a joke, especially in middle and high-school. The teachers are teaching only what the minimum standards call for, and they are only teaching what is needed to pass whatever tests are necessary to provide evidence that the schools are being "effective."

In some schools, science is taught only part of the year. The over-emphasis on testing in order to meet some innane government standard is destroying the learning environment. We are teaching kids what to think, not how to think.

In many "chemistry" classes, chemicals aren't used at all!! The students play virtual chemistry on a computer screen. This is supposedly "safer". The students, rather than learn RESPECT for a Na+H2O reaction in a real flask, simply use pounds of reactant to see how big an explosion will result on the screen! I have seen it happen.

Until we admit that the system is screwed up, no political institution or party will be able to do a damn thing about the sad state of science education in the US.

We've got to stop creating artificial goals with no meaning, and then patting ourselves on the back when we meet them.

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40. Cartesian on February 28, 2011 5:26 AM writes...

I hope that the good scientists of these countries are gone, and the best should have done it. Or the international scientists should help them as much as possible to be respected by the people and by the authorities. Because generally they are manipulated in order to make think that what they are doing is not deserving any power, in order that less intelligent persons can keep more power (the people also wants it, it is proved, so it is better for them to not use the people in order to be in a better situation).

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