PREVIEW-U.S. seen keeping grip on science Nobels -- for now

STOCKHOLM, Oct 4 (Reuters) - Heavy spending by the United States on research is likely to pay off again next week, with its leading scientists tipped to dominate the Nobel awards in physics, chemistry and medicine.

But past winners and experts say the U.S. science supremacy of the last few years may not last forever.

Stockholm's Karolinska Institute announces the 2007 Laureate for physiology or medicine on Oct. 8. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences then presents the award for physics on Oct. 9 with chemistry following on Oct. 10.

U.S. scientists and institutions have dominated the winners' roster for the 10 million crown ($1.54 million) prize across all three sciences in recent years with a clean sweep in 2006.

Many say the U.S. stranglehold results from generous funding for research from across the world's richest economy.

"The U.S.A. has government, industry, and philanthropic funding whereas most countries, like Australia, have only one possible large source," said Australian Barry Marshall, who shared the Nobel Medicine prize in 2005.

"Even though these programmes don't set out to win a Nobel Prize, they end up attracting so many smart people that the spin-off is a Nobel Prize-winning discovery."

The United States spends about 2.7 percent of its gross domestic product on research and development compared with about 1.8 percent in Europe. China invests about 1.3 percent.

The EU aims to spend 3 percent of gross domestic product on research by 2010 since it sees innovation as a growth engine.

"Our message is that we are behind. Not just the U.S., but China and India are catching us up," said Antonia Mochan, at the EU's Directorate General for Science and Research.


Still, the Nobel dominance of the United States is likely to persist, at least for the time being.

The Nobel judges often reward discoveries made years, if not decades, ago, favouring established universities and scientists.

Although countries such as China and India are pumping ever-larger sums into science, it may be some time before the work now underway wins recognition.

Leading scientists also attract the best of the next generation to their labs, perpetuating their success.

"There is a strategy for a Nobel and several U.S. institutions have experience with Nobels already and therefore know how to protect and nurture their potential winners," said Marshall, who won the medicine prize for work on peptic ulcers.

Things may change.

"Predominance for the U.S. and for Western European countries will not be forever," said John Mather, Physics Laureate in 2006 for work on the origins of the universe.

The United States may even be excluding itself from some areas of potentially prize-winning research, Mather said, citing stem cells and HIV/AIDS -- research areas that have aroused controversy in the United States.

"The U.S. has made it difficult for its researchers in some areas," he said. "Some research is political."

Developing countries are also adopting clear strategies to boost scientific endeavour.

"Fifty years from now, the U.S. dominance will have decreased remarkably," said Harriet Wallberg-Henriksson, a president of Sweden's Karolinska Institute and panel member for the medicine prize. "My guess is that you will see more and more prize-winners from Asia."

Additional reporting by Michael Perry in Sydney