Even though Americans won 1979 Nobel prizes in physics, chemistry and medicine, the two leading scientists in the Carter administration believe U.S. domination of the Nobel prizes in science is nearing an end.
"I think we will be winning Nobel prizes in the future, but I also think Western Europe is now our equal in some areas of science," White House science adviser Frank Press said in an interview. "They're concentrating harder, they're getting together and pooling their resources and in some areas such as high energy physics they may pull ahead of us."
Richard C. Atkinson, director of the National Science Foundation, believes that the nations of Western Europe and the Soviet Union will start to win their share of Nobel prizes.
"I think we will continue to win Nobel prizes, but not at the rate we have," Atkinson told The Post. "I think the Russians are going to start taking off, because they're pouring immense amounts of money into research. I just don't think we can go on dominating these Nobel prizes the way we have."
There is little doubt that the United States had dominated the Nobel prizes in science the last 20 years, when 73 Americans won Nobel prizes in physics, chemistry and medicine. Not a single year has passed since 1959 that at least one American did not win at least a share in one of these three Nobel science prizes.
Contrast this with the records of the other major industrial nations, where science gets strong financial support. Only one Japanese, four Russians, five Frenchmen and eight West Germans have won Nobel science prizes in the last 20 years. Great Britain is the only country besides the United States to win more than 20, Britons having won 22 Nobel science awards.
The three Americans who shared Nobel prizes this year in physics and chemistry agree they won for work they did 10 to 15 years ago, when science was getting its peak financial support in the United States.
"Science had more status then that it does now, it attracted more bright people then than it does today," said Purdue University's Dr. Herbert C. Brown, who shared the Nobel prize for chemistry with a West German. "I hope it will continue, but I really don't know how much longer it can go on."
Nobel prizes go for work the winners did 10 years before the awards, with a few exceptions. One year, the physics prize was given for work the year before; another year, one American and two Russians won for pioneering work they did in lasers four years earlier.
Press and Atkinson think other countries soon will begin to be represented in the Nobel winners' circle. One reason they cite is that support for basic research has declined in the United States in the last 10 years, while rising dramatically in West Germany, France, the Soviet Union and Japan.
"We spend about 2 percent of our gross national product on research, down from more than 3 percent in the peak year of 1968," Atkinson said. "The Germans, the French, the Russians and the Japanese are now all ahead of us on that score."
American astronomers, mathematicians and high energy physicists now have difficulty finding jobs. In the U.S. labor force, the percentage of scientists and engineers in research and development work has fallen sharply in the last 10 years.Industry's investment in fundamental research as a fraction of sales is down 32 percent.
More significantly, enrollments in science and engineering graduate schools in the United States has declined the last 10 years. For example, the number of engineering Ph. D. degrees granted in 1978 was 2,423, a drop of 1,053 from the 3,476 doctorate degrees handed out in 1972.
Foreigners make up a higher percentage of the science and engineering graduate students in the United States. In 1978, the engineering graduate school enrollment was 38,381. Of that number, 11,532 were foreign students.
Foreigners working for doctorate degrees of Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology now comprise 40 percent of these institutions' graduate school enrollments.
"They're Orientals, Iranians, Venezuelans and from the oil countries of the Middle East," Atkinson said. "They're students from the new rich countries of the world."