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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 October, 2004, 22:27 GMT 23:27 UK
Monty Python and the spirit of inquiry
Stephen Evans
By Stephen Evans
BBC North American business correspondent

Richard Axel and Linda Buck
Dr Axel and Dr Buck smell a sweet idea

About this time of year, I always think of the Monty Python film, "The Life of Brian".

You may remember that in it, a rabble-rousing, anti-imperialist agitator (by the name of Reg) asks a crowd, "What have the Romans ever done for us?"

It's clearly a rhetorical question. Reg's view is that "They taken everything we had, not just from us, from our fathers and from our fathers' fathers."

But the crowd of oppressees sees things differently. The down-trodden start answering: "sanitation", says one man; "medicine" says another. And so it goes on: "education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health".

Glittering prizes

This classic scene comes to mind whenever the Nobel prizes are announced at this time of year. "What have the Americans ever done for us?" seems to get asked more loudly around the world these days.

When it comes to scientific inquiry, the Americans dominate the Nobel Prizes.

This year is no exception. Of the 12 prize-winners, seven are American, and of the prizes for scientific research (Medicine, Economics, Physics and Chemistry), Americans won seven of the 10.

Since World War II, American universities - although not invariably American academics - have accounted for 60% of Nobel Prizes.

Flower power

Take the two who won the Medicine prize. Dr Richard Axel of Columbia University and Dr Linda Buck at the University of Washington in Seattle discovered how humans can identify perhaps 10,000 different smells.

Their work explains scientifically how we might smell, say, a rose in childhood and recognise the fragrance throughout life.

In time, such understanding of the basic ways in which our bodies work will help scientists develop cures for many diseases.

The work of Edward Prescott, a professor at Arizona State University and this year's economics prize joint winner, helps us understand hyper-inflation, the taming of which benefits countless ordinary people around the world.

Irwin Rose from the University of California was one of the winners of the Chemistry Prize for research into how cells behave, work which helps the understanding of cancer. It may also have implications for the treatment of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Already, one American drug company has launched a cancer drug based on the principles discovered.

Asking the right questions

There may be those who say: "Ah well, it is easy for the Americans to dominate the Nobel prizes because America has the money to spend on research".

That, it seems to me, is to do the Americans an injustice.

A culture of research and inquiry is also necessary. Overall, the US spends 2.7% of its gross domestic product on research and development, compared with 1.9% in the European Union.

Nobody quite knows how culture and economic development interact but it's clear that they do. Theocracies, for example, don't tend to foster technological breakthrough. If the only questions deemed relevant are those pertaining to a god, then other questions don't get asked.

There are other innovative countries, fast catching up. Britain is a leader in stem-cell research; South Korean scientists have made the big breakthroughs in cloning; Asian laboratories are making strides. But America is strides ahead - and that's good for all of us.

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