Top German chemist complains that US domination in recent years is linked to lobbying efforts

Ned Stafford/Hamburg, Germany

US success among the 2006 Nobel prizes has prompted a top German chemist to complain that US domination in recent years has more to do with lobbying efforts than with superiority over European peers.

Helmut Schwarz, of the Institute of Chemistry at Technical University Berlin, said that US scientists who won Nobel prizes this year in chemistry, physics, physiology or medicine, and - for good measure - economics are no doubt deserving of the awards. However, he maintained that there are equally deserving scientists in Germany and the rest of Europe this year and in previous years who were passed over because of the US lobbying effort.

Schwarz, a vice president of the German Science Foundation (DFG), said that administrators from leading US universities and other scientific leaders agree in advance on which American scientists to support in any given year, and then flood Nobel selection committees with those names.

’If Scientist X from the USA is suggested forty or fifty times, and Scientist Y from Europe only five times, it makes a big difference psychologically,’ he said. ’I cannot prove it in a legal way,’ said Schwarz, ’but I am certain this is happening.’

Jonna Petterson, a spokeswoman at the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden, rejected claims that Nobel prize selection committees are influenced by US lobbying.

Nobel selection committees choose winners on the basis of scientific ’accomplishment, nothing else,’ said Petterson. ’The committee chooses the candidate who is most deserving.’

Schwarz first publicly voiced his suspicions in a couple of German newspapers. But having spoken out, he has company.

Robert Huber, who shared a Nobel prize for chemistry in 1988 as a member of the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Munich agrees. ’I am glad a prominent scientist like Helmut Schwarz has spelled out so clearly what he believes is happening,’ Huber told Chemistry World.

But he was quick to add that conditions are ripe in the US to produce excellent scientists, with generous public and philanthropic funding, an openness to innovation, and excellent opportunities for young scientists.

Huber agrees, however that excellent scientists in Europe have been passed over as winners because of American lobbying. Nobel selection committee members are independent and most certainly do not vote for winners on the basis of the number of nominations, he said, ’but, of course, they are not immune against lobbying. They are human.’

Both Schwarz and Huber believe that European nations should increase lobbying efforts to counteract US lobbying. ’As far as I know, there is really no organised effort in Europe like in the US,’ said Huber.

Wolfram Koch, executive director of the German Chemical Society (GDCh) in Frankfurt, says that the GDCh debated whether it should coordinate the promotion of a German candidate for the Nobel prize, but opinions varied widely. 

’In the end, we did not get involved in this matter,’ said Koch. ’However, I think the skeptical approach adopted by some, even though being reasonable and understandable from an ethical point of view, is probably a bit too naive. We simply have to accept that a coordinated and well organized lobbying for a certain candidate, as being done successfully by the US and others, does have a severe impact on the selection process.’

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