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Singapore Nobel Prize


Why Has Singapore Not Won A Nobel Prize?

by Kenneth Lyen

So far Singapore has not won any Nobel Prizes. Why? Nearly every Singaporean I spoke to gave the excuse that Singapore is too small a country to be able to win a Nobel Prize.

I was skeptical of this reason, and so decided to do some research on my own. Yes, we are indeed quite a small island, with a land area of only 692.7 square kilometers (267 square miles), and a population of 4,353,893 people.

But we are not that small. I therefore looked at countries with a population comparable to ours, to see how many Nobel Prizes they have won, and this is what I came up with:

Switzerland                 7,450,867                          31
Hong Kong                6,855,125                            0
Israel                           6,199,008                            8
Paraguay                    6,191,368                            1
Denmark                     5,413,392                          13
Finland                       5,214,512                            2
Norway                      4,574,560                           10
Singapore                  4,353,893                            0
Bosnia Herzegovina 4,007,608                           2
New Zealand             3,993,817                            2
Ireland                        3,969,558                          10
Costa Rica                  3,956,507                           1
Puerto Rico                3,897,960                           1
Lithuania                    3,607,899                           2
Luxembourg                 462,690                            1
Iceland                          293,966                            1

Country Population 2004 taken from the CIA World Factbook.
Country the Nobel laureate was born, educated or affiliated with.

We are about the same population size as Denmark (13 prizes), Finland (2), Norway (10), Bosnia Herzegovina (2), New Zealand (2), and Ireland (10). Indeed, countries with a minuscule population size such as Luxembourg's 462,690 and Iceland's 293,966, have each won 1 Nobel Prize.

Therefore size cannot be the reason why Singapore has not won any prizes. There have to be other factors. The top reason, I think, must be the quality of the research carried out here. Until recently, research was quite low in priority. In the past, the Singapore government tended to fund research with quick financial returns, and that meant supporting applied research rather than fundamental research.

PhD programs were relatively few, and university graduates were not encouraged to go into research. Even scholars doing research overseas found that when they returned home, the infrastructure for research was not well set up, and they soon became discouraged.

We need a radical change in mindset. We need to cultivate a mind with an almost obsessional degree of curiosity, a willingess to challenge authority, to think independently, to take risks. We also must learn to work in teams, to share credits, and to think and plan for the long term.

Our national ambition seems to be to do well in sports, to win the soccer world cup or the Olympic games, rather than a Nobel prize. In contrast, a former president of the University of Columbia in New York once admitted that his university was not very good at sports, but said that if the number of Nobel Prizes won exceeded the number of major sports matches lost, he would be delighted. To date, Columbia University has won 71 Nobel Prizes, while losing 44 major sports matches. Below is the league table for Nobel laureates and their institutions:

Cambridge University              80 winners
University of Chicago              77 winners
Columbia University                 71 winners
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 59 winners
Oxford University                      47 winners
Harvard University                   41 winners
John Hopkins University         31 winners
Caltech                                       29 winners
Cornell University                     29 winners
Princeton University                 28 winners
Stanford University                  23 winners
The Rockefeller University     23 winners
University of Manchester       21 winners
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 20 winners
University of Berkeley              18 winners
Imperial College, London         14 winners
London School of Economics 13 winners
University of Utrecht                 12 winners
Bell Laboratories                       11 winners

I sincerely hope that Singapore will value academic achievements as much as it does sports. Given time and luck, I am sure we will make it on the world stage!