By Associated Press Writer
updated 10/13/2004 3:57:17 PM ET 2004-10-13T19:57:17

As American scientists again won a majority of the Nobel Prizes this year, European officials said they're trying hard to close the trans-Atlantic gap in scientific research.

It was the fifth consecutive year that Americans led the number of laureates, a result that analysts attributed not only to American know-how, but also to American funding of thousands of researchers across the country.

Europe is trying to level the playing field, but that could take decades given the fact that the United States has a head start and spends more than twice as much annually on scientific research than all European Union nations combined.

A week of Nobel announcements ended Monday with the United States again dominating the science fields _ medicine, physics, chemistry and economics _ with seven of the 10 winners coming from America.

Since the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, 284 of the 672 winners in all six categories _ or 42.2 percent _ have been Americans. Many of the other winners, including Norwegian Finn Kydland, who shared this year's economics prize with American Edward Prescott, have been researchers at U.S. universities.

Just two Europeans were recognized this year, including Kydland and Austria's Elfriede Jelinek, who won the literature prize.

"We're well aware that Europe trails well behind the United States," said Fabio Fabbi, the EU executive Commission's spokesman for research and technological development. "We're trying to address this in many different ways."

The main reason for the American dominance is simple, Fabbi said: The United States outspends the 25-nation EU by nearly $148 billion a year on research _ $271.2 billion to $123.3 billion.

Al Teich, director of science policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., said the "money certainly helps but I think it goes beyond money." He noted that the top U.S. universities are generally regarded as the best in the world and can attract the best talent.

A competitive grant system in the United States also has boosted research because it helps "provide a marketplace of ideas on a national level," something that has been lacking in Europe, he said.

Since the 1960s, Europeans have focused mainly on applied research, while Americans have looked for new discoveries in the basic sciences, said Bertil Andersson, chief executive of the European Science Foundation.

"Risk taking has not been rewarded" by the European funding programs, Andersson said. "But to win a Nobel Prize, you have to discover something new."

An EU action plan calls for an increase in research funding to 3 percent of the bloc's gross domestic product _ the same percentage level in the United States _ by 2010. The current figure is at 1.9 percent, Fabbi said.

But more money alone won't bring Europe up to speed.

"Today, Europe is too fragmented," said Andersson, who is also a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which picks the winners in physics, chemistry and economics. While the United States launched several large federal research programs shortly after World War II, European countries have continued to work individually, he said.

A blueprint for a European Research Council, which would coordinate efforts among countries and enable them to pool resources and knowledge, was presented to the European Commission in June, Fabbi said, and a concrete proposal could be ready later this year.

The EU also is trying to offset a huge "brain drain," with tens of thousands of European scientists and specialists moving to American universities, institutions and companies every year, Fabbi said. To counter that, Europe is trying to attract more researchers from Asia and developing nations, he said.

But any success in improving European research, at least as measured by Nobel Prizes, could take decades to see. Most science laureates are honored more than 15 years after they made their discoveries.

"There are a lot of movements in different directions, but I don't think the U.S.A's position will be challenged anytime soon," said Jonas Foerare, a spokesman for the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

This year's Nobel announcements began Oct. 4 with the prize in physiology or medicine going to Americans Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck. Americans David J. Gross, H. David Politzer and Frank Wilczek won the physics prize, while American Irwin Rose and Israelis Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko shared the chemistry prize.

The peace prize went to Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai, the first black African woman to win a Nobel Prize.

The prizes, which each include $1.3 million, are presented Dec. 10, the anniversary of founder Alfred Nobel's death.


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