I really like the award of the 2012 Physics Nobel Prize to Serge Haroche and David Wineland. (I predicted entanglement but not these individuals).
Their studies have made theoretical ideas about quantum decoherence and entanglement actually testable in the lab. A nice summary of the scientific background is here.
One thing the award highlights to me is the high value (return on investment) of table-top science. I would guess that Haroche and Wineland's annual research budgets would be less than one million dollars. This is to be contrasted to How much does it cost to find a Higgs boson? (about 10 billion dollars).
This award also highlights the incredible and enviable track record of NIST, who have received 4 Nobels in the past 15 years (Bill Phillips, 1997; Eric Cornell, 2001; John Hall, 2005; Phillips, 2012). The former 3 recently testified to the US congress that NIST management style was key to their success.
Table top science is relatively cheap. It is the most cost-effective investment for smaller countries and institutions.