The STEM Education Champion Who Just Got a Huge Cash Award Out of the Blue

Each year, two Lasker Awards go to leading medical researchers, with a third category that’s more of a wild card. This year it went to a veteran biochemist for his powerful work in STEM education.

Bruce Alberts has a compelling, but kind of rare message when it comes to science and math education. It’s that everyone needs it, and not for any particular job or application—just the fact that we need to be fact-seeking, rational people to get through life. 

“The world is a very dangerous place without rational thinking,” as he says in a video honoring his work,  surrounding the announcement of his Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science. 

Alberts wants to change the way we teach science so more people are instilled with an appreciation of scientific values as a universal, fact-based approach to decision-making, instead of teaching a bunch of facts to memorize. It’s his dedication to that idea, in part, that landed him the Lasker award. 

It’s not just the message that did it, of course. He is a practically legendary researcher, educator and scientific community leader whose 50-year career included serving as editor in chief of Science, and two terms as president of the National Academy of Sciences. But the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation chose him for the 2016 award in recognition of his “pioneering work in science and mathematics education.”

At NAS he helped develop the National Science Education Standards, he co-founded the UCSF Science & Health Education Partnership in support of the San Francisco Unified School District, and he’s now involved in Rescuing Biomedical Research, which seeks to reshape the current research climate to overcome systemic problems.  

Rewarding STEM education is not an explicit goal of the Lasker Awards, as the annual prizes are chiefly for medical research. One of the three 2016 awards went to a team that discovered how cells adapt to changes in oxygen availability. The second celebrated a breakthrough treatment for Hepatitis C. Several past winners have gone on to win Nobel Prizes.

But of the three annual Laskers, the third is often full of surprises. It actually alternates between the Special Achievement Award that Alberts won, and the Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award. Such past notable award winners include Bill and Melinda Gates for their philanthropy (Public Service), geneticist Mary-Claire King in part for her work using DNA to reunite missing people with their families (Special Achievement), and Médecins Sans Frontières for its emergency response efforts (Public Service).  

Each award comes with a $250,000 prize, and the program is one of a handful carried out by the foundation. Other Lasker funding programs support work on retinal degenerative diseases, open access videos on biology research, clinical research, and summer internships. 

We hear from a lot of STEM funders that want to build up the American workforce, make the county more competitive, or improve economic opportunity. Those are important motivations in their own right, but it’s very refreshing to hear someone articulate the need to support STEM education just because it’s good for humanity, and be celebrated for it.

Related:Lasker Awards Recall a Seminal Figure in Health Philanthropy and Activism