Making the most of world talent for science? The Nobel Prize and Fields Medal experience

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Opportunities in science largely affect the accumulation of scientific knowledge and, therefore, technological change. However, there is little evidence of how much of people’s talent is actually wasted. Here we focus on scientists with the highest performance, the recipients of the Nobel Prize and Fields Medal. We found that the average age of scientists at the time of the breakthrough was higher for researchers from less developed countries. Moreover, individual opportunities in the world were extremely unequal by country of birth, gender significantly conditioned any participation in research, and the probability of becoming a top researcher more than doubled for individuals with parents belonging to the most favoured occupational categories. Thus, inequality of opportunity in science at the highest level was higher than in sports excellence (Olympic medals) and educational attainment. These findings would not be so negative if opportunities in science at the highest level had increased over time. Contrary to the expectations, our results show that opportunities in science, in contrast with humanities, have stagnated.
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