How many Nobel Prizes has the UK won?

Published: 6th Sep 2017

In brief

Claim

The United Kingdom has won the second-most number of Nobel Prizes after the United States.

Conclusion

This is correct. There are lots of different ways to count it too. If we look at Nobel Prizes per person, the UK is down to 10th.

“We have more Nobel Prize winners than any country outside of the United States”

Theresa May, 6 September 2017

Believe it or not, getting the answer isn’t as simple as you might think.

Identifying individual people (or organisations) who have won one of the six Nobel Prizes is straightforward; deciding how to allocate Nobel Prizes to countries is not. Sources differ on how many prizes each country has.

We ran our own calculations using the Nobel Prize data to find out more.

If we base it on the country where each Nobel Prize winner (a "Nobel Laureate") was born then it's correct that the United States has the highest number of Nobel Laureates with 259, followed by the UK with 99. Germany is third with 91 Nobel Laureates.

But there are other ways to add up Nobel Laureates by country

Firstly, countries have changed. India was once part of the British Empire but is now an independent state. Rudyard Kipling, born in India under British rule, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907—should we count this as a prize for India or the UK?

Second, we might prefer instead to look at which country hosted or funded the work, or the nationality of the Nobel Laureate at the time they were awarded the prize, rather than their country of birth.

Third, a Nobel Prize be may be shared by more than one person. If joint work by a British and a Belgian scientist is awarded a Nobel Prize it might be fairer to say that Britain and Belgium each got half a prize. This happened in 2013 when the Nobel prize for Physics was awarded to Professors Peter Higgs and Englert François, and there are many more examples.

Under this definition, there have been about 61 Nobel Prizes awarded to people born in the UK. This still puts them in second place to the United States’ 139 and ahead of third-placed Germany with just under 60.

Size matters

Maybe we should also make adjustments so that countries of different sizes are compared fairly. For example Luxembourg has two Nobel Prizes with a population of around 580,000 people. That’s one prize in every 290,000 people. Compare that with the UK, which has one prize in every 663,000 people—which sounds much less impressive.

Looking at prizes per capita the UK comes in at 10th, although this still depends on the factors discussed above. Topping the table is Saint Lucia, which has two Nobel winners from a population of just 178,000.

Other things we might want to consider is the number of universities or the amount of research funding each country provides. If we wanted to be really picky, we could take into account the number of people who were ever citizens of the country since the start of the Nobel Prize awards, rather than just the current population.

But that’s an analysis for another time.

This factcheck is part of a roundup of Prime Minister's Questions. Read the roundup.

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