Published 4 July 2014 by Sofia Espinoza

Science World Cup

Counting numbers of titles – FIFA versus Nobel Laureates.

Most of us are aware that while we are spending the days together in this amazing meeting, the 20th FIFA World Cup is happening in Brazil. This international competition has been held every four years since 1930, with the exception of a 12-year gap from 1938 to 1950. Football players from 32 nations get together to prove they are the best ones while the rest of the world watch expectantly the turn outs. Whether your country is part of the 2014 World Cup or not, it is difficult not to get excited with the games and as we learned from Nobel Laureate Kurt Wüthrich and this video, even the Laureates get passionate about it. If, somehow, the World Cup scheme was translated to our scientific world, which country would stay with the trophy? How would the countries holding FIFA titles stand on the “Science World Cup”? In the following post, I will discuss the scientific situation of some emblematic countries that have participated in the FIFA World Cup.

Science World Cup Facts

Out of the 77 countries that have participated in the FIFA World Cup, only 8 countries share the 19 titles disputed so far.


World Cup Winners: Out of 77* countries, only 8 have won at least one of the 19 disputed FIFA World Cups between 1930 - 2010. Brazil leads the ranking with 5 titles. Infografic by Sofia
World Cup Winners: Out of 77* countries, only 8 have won at least one of the 19 disputed FIFA World Cups between 1930 – 2010. Brazil leads the ranking with 5 titles. Infografic by Sofia

This shows a strong dominance of only a reduced group of countries that for either, historical, cultural or economic reasons managed to get their teams to the top. Although science is a completely different game, the general distribution of Nobel Laureates is not that different.

Nobel Laureates (Phisiology and Medicine, Chemistry, and Physics included) per country. Out of the 566 Nobel Laureates from 1901 to 2013, 439 (78%) are from 10 countries. United States leads the ranking with 184 (33%) Nobel Laureates. Infographic by Sofia
Nobel Laureates (Phisiology and Medicine, Chemistry, and Physics included) per country. Out of the 566 Nobel Laureates from 1901 to 2013, 439 (78%) are from 10 countries. United States leads the ranking with 184 (33%) Nobel Laureates. Infographic by Sofia

As shown here out of the total number of Nobel Laureates in Physiology & Medicine, Physics and Chemistry awarded since 1901 (n=566) , 10 countries account for 439, almost 80% of them. Let’s briefly discuss the scientific situation of the two leaders in each category (Brazil and United States), and Germany, the only country to be on the top 3 of both of them.


One does not simply talk about the World Cup without mentioning Brazil, indeed, the 5 times world champion is the only country that has participated in all FIFA World Cups. Besides that, the current World Cup host national team has scored more goals and has won more matches than any other country. Unfortunately, not all the glitter is gold and in Brazilian science, things are not that shiny…yet.

According to several sources, Brazilian science is beginning to “boom”. Not only Brazilian government is boosting science funding but Brazil has increased 10 times the production of doctorates in only two decades. They are sending thousands of Brazilian students abroad to be trained, and at the same time recruiting top scientists from all over the world with attractive salaries. However, there are still big gaps in the Brazilian scientific system (especially in the administrative system), but Brazil is trying, and really hard. For instance, while some big science potencies like US or UK are reducing their budget for science, Brazil is increasing it dramatically (it doubled it from 2012 to 2013). Indeed, this article claims that: “Government and businesses there (Brazil) invest some US$27 billion annually in science, technology and innovation, dwarfing the price tag for the football tournament, which tops out at about $15 billion”. I hope they keep on redefying their priorities and that their success in football translates into their science. If so, it won’t be too long until amazing science comes from this tropical country.

Brazil has none Laureates, and it might take a while, but I’m sure this will change. Unfortunately for Brazil, it is not yet time for it to shine in the Science World Cup. Only time will tell.

United States

United States has participated in 10 FIFA World Cups, including this one. Their highest achievement was in the first FIFA World Cup competition held in 1930 where they got 3rd place. This year, U.S. left at the round of 16, however, they put up a good fight. Their performance surprised us all, even US citizens (at least the ones I’ve talked to at Lindau). We cannot deny that their football situation is way better than the one in South Africa 2010, and if they keep on doing whatever they are doing, it will go better. Funny thing is, U.S. football current situation resembles Brazilian science and U.S science is closer to the Brazilian football greatness. United States has the largest number of Laureates: 184 (32%). This doesn’t come as a surprise as U.S. has been and still is one of the greatest “scientific meccas” of all times.

However, there is still a lot of room for structural improvement in their scientific system. As we have heard at Lindau there are some “universal” issues in science, and US is not unaffected. Better policies for women in science, better postdoc working conditions, a better grant awarding system, etc, etc… these problems are in every country at some level and, as Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt said some “band aids have been thrown around” but only a structural change will make the situation better. Nevertheless, we cannot deny US leadership in science and in an eventual Science World Cup, yes, they would win. But I think it would be difficult to keep the title as other scientific potencies are emerging and the constant pressure coming from some US politicians to cut scientific federal funding is not helping.

Interesting fact: U.S is sometimes criticized for being a “PhD factory”, truth is the net production of scientists in the U.S is only outdone by China. In 2009, around 20,000 doctorates in the life science and physical science were awarded.


Our current host is not only very good in science but one of the most successful countries in the World Cup. Germany has been to 18 out of the 20 competitions, has won 3 times and reached the finals 4 other times. They are still strong in the game and today they will be part of a breathtaking match as it will be against France, a historically intense opponent. Although both selections had to work hard for their entrance to quarter- finals, they have shown good definition scoring 9 and 10 goals, respectively (yes, that’s a lot!).

So, what about Germany’s science? On the face of it, since 2005, everything has been steadily good. Federal funding has increase from $12 billion in 2005 to almost $20 billion in 2013. Yet again, although there is a commitment from the government to not let federal funding decrease from 3% of their GDP, there are still reservations from German research institutions as nothing, especially in politics, is for sure. From what I’ve heard from fellow participants at Lindau, Germany is one of the best countries to do Science in Europe. For this country, the science boom continues, and it is boosted by the presence of international scientists. For instance: “At Max Planck institutes, almost 90% of postdocs, half of all postgraduate students and more than 40% of scientific directors recruited in the past decade came from abroad” – read more here. In this Science World Cup, Germany is also in the third place as shown in our charts it has 66 Laureates (although, per capita it gets the second prize after England). So if like me, you find Germany an attractive place to end up doing science: you should take a look at the Euraxess web page. This country has 66 Nobel Laureates in Physiology & Medicine, Physics and Chemistry. It is only surpassed by United States and England, however if we take into consideration their population Germany stands second as it would have 8 Laureates per 10 million people. England 11 and United States 6. Overall, I think Germany is the country that stands the best in both ranking, and Germans can be proud of both their football national team and their science national one.

Finally, I wanted to share with you a thought I had after Kurt Wüthnich’s talk: It’s clear that Science and football are completely different games. However, taking a long shot, wouldn’t it be fair to say that Nobel Prizes are the “GOALS” of science? From what I’ve been hearing from the Laureates themselves, getting there is a mixture of “being-at-the-right-place-at-the-right-time”, but also a consequence of cumulative efforts, preparation and persistence…as in football, we might not realize the amount of effort (and struggle) that precede the moment in which the ball enters the net, but for sure those are the moments that make each goal so marvelous, and sometimes, magical.

Sofia Espinoza

Sofia, Lindau Alumna 2014, was born and raised in Lima, Peru. She is a third-year graduate student at the Thomas Pollard laboratory at Yale University. She researches the Arp2/3 complex, a protein involved in cell motility. Malfunctions in this protein are related to cancer and neurological disorders. She is also the co-director of the Research Experience for Peruvian Undergraduates (REPU) program, which supports the development of scientific capacity in Peru by educating a new generation of Peruvian scientists. Moreover, she is involved in several other science outreach efforts at the United States and Peru.