Do These Glitzy New Science Prizes Actually Make Much Sense?

 Team members of the supernova cosmology project and high-z supernova project, which won a 2015 breakthrough prize    

Team members of the supernova cosmology project and high-z supernova project, which won a 2015 breakthrough prize   

The Breakthrough Prizes’ explicit purpose is to elevate our appreciation of scientists, as Yuri Milner and the band of wealthy tech donors behind them emphasize. The aim is to put researchers in the spotlight in the same way society elevates movie stars and athletes—to give them rock star status.

The strategy is twofold: First, the scientists are showered with a very large amount of money—$3 million for each winner, more than double the usual Nobel. The winners attend a big awards ceremony alongside celebrities like Vin Diesel, Will.i.am and Alex Rodriguez. 

Now in its fifth year, that strategy has worked, at least in the sense that it definitely does draw attention. Every year, major publications including the New York Times and Discover Magazine cover the event and the winners. And why not? The researchers’ work is meaningful and interesting to read about. It’s fun to hear about the recipients' surprise at getting the news. You can read all about the latest winners’ work here.  

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But among the most intriguing parts of the Breakthrough coverage are the the puzzled responses from some of the winners, and a recurring theme of recipients intending to give money away to other researchers. That says a lot about the nature of these high-dollar science prizes, and how the very concept of celebrity glitz remains at odds with the world of research. 

The best response this year comes from the sole female winner, Huda Zoghbi

The prizes may give scientists a glimpse of fame, but celebrity has little appeal, Zoghbi said. “Material things and limelight are fleeting, they come and go. You could give me all the money in the world to do another job and I wouldn’t do it,” she said. “I am working on something that will help people, and that reward is with you every day.”

There was also Terence Tao, winner of a mathematics prize in 2014:

Dr. Tao tried to talk Mr. Milner out of it, and suggested that more prizes of smaller amounts might be more effective in supporting mathematics. “The size of the award, I think it’s ridiculous,” he said. “I didn’t feel I was the most qualified for this prize.”
But Dr. Tao added: “It’s his money. He can do whatever he wants with it.”

Or Maxim Kontsevich, who won a Breakthrough that same year, not long after winning the $1 million Shaw Prize. “I was a bit embarrassed, I have to say.”

There’s also the notable culture clash surrounding the awards ceremony, with prize winners joking about having to find a tuxedo or a gown to wear for the first and probably last time, or not even knowing who the guest celebrities are. The coverage of the prizes often ends up featuring photos of Hollywood celebrities posing with the wealthy Silicon Valley donors themselves, who don tuxes and shake hands with famous attendees at the events.

But perhaps most telling is that fact that a number of winners have expressed plans to distribute at least some of the money to other researchers. Tao mentioned he wanted to help set up open access journals. Harvard geneticist Stephen Elledge said he hopes to arrange scholarships for kids from his small hometown. Zoghbi said she plans to set up a mentorship award, a fund to help young researchers, and scholarships at her alma mater. 

It’s certainly possible that these guys are just being humble, and that researchers actually love these awards. And they’re absolutely deserving of recognition. But what does it say when you give someone a big prize and they don’t really want it? 

For one, it says that the recipients are often already in prestigious, well-recognized places in their careers. And they just don’t need that kind of money. That’s not a great sign in philanthropy. It also shows a shared, admirable concern about the health of their respective fields, and a desire to ensure the ability of young people to enter amid stagnant science funding. 

That gets to the most common and valid criticism of the Breakthrough Prizes, as well as other high-dollar prizes. Research is a huge group effort, and while prizes lavishly award small sets of people, there are many researchers who could use a piece of that money for important work. As Lawrence Krauss pointed out in the New Yorker, 2012’s prize money could have funded something like 270 new postdoctoral fellowships that year. 

On the positive side, the Breakthroughs have expanded to award smaller prizes to young researchers; six teams won this year. And there is now a Breakthrough Junior Prize. And the awards do sometimes go to small teams of researchers. A special prize even went to the LIGO gravitational waves discovery team of over 1,000 members.

The sponsors reiterate the premise that this acts as a prominent spotlight that positions science as something worthy of glamour and attention in a society. But the implication is that the benefit of this approach will outweigh the benefit of, say, several smaller research grants. Keep in mind that there are many smaller prizes like the MacArthur Fellowships that draw tons of attention and prestige.

The question is whether huge checks and awards ceremonies with celebrities and startup owners really elevate scientific achievement. And maybe they will, over time, but in the first five years, it feels like there’s lingering misalignment between that intention, in relation to the reasons people pursue science careers, and the reasons non-scientists value their work. I’m skeptical that the Breakthroughs persuade the public that scientists should be thought of as “rock stars,” or that this is the right way to cultivate more respect and support for research.

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