If it were not for Bob Dylan – the singer, songwriter and now Nobel laureate – 2016 would have become the first year since 1999 without a Nobel winner born in the United States.
Since World War II, the U.S. has dominated the four research Nobels (in medicine, chemistry, physics and economics). It did so this year too. But there was a difference: None of the nine scholars who shared the four research Nobel Prizes in 2016 was born in the United States. However, as many as six of the winners work at U.S. universities and now call the United States as their home.
In other words, this year, as in so many others, America’s Nobel success was a story of immigrants. At a time when immigration has become a hot-button issue, this fact did not go unnoticed, including by the White House.
So why does this matter?
I have been associated with U.S. academia for a quarter-century – first as a student from Pakistan and then as a researcher, a teacher and more recently a university administrator. I have experienced the magical embrace of U.S. higher education firsthand.
I believe the diversity of the Nobel winners is a testimony to the spectacular exceptionalism of U.S. higher education: U.S. academic institutions attract, welcome, embrace and ultimately benefit from the best intellectual talent from all corners of the world.
Race to the top
There are many things that make American higher education truly exceptional. Immigration, and the ease and openness of U.S. academia to scholars from across the world, is certainly not the only one.
But, it is an important one.
In fact, many other countries are trying hard, though less successfully, to replicate the U.S. experience. For example, countries such as Singapore, South Korea, even Saudi Arabia, which are investing heavily in building their own research universities, begin by trying to attract top researchers from across the world. They offer them incentives such as outstanding facilities and lucrative salaries.