This week marked the latest round of the young, but ever so stylish Breakthrough Prizes, a suite of science awards sponsored by some of the world’s wealthiest tech entrepreneurs. The 2015 winners shed a little more light on what the awards mean to science.
The Breakthrough Prize was created mostly to serve as a big, $3 million spotlight, it was concocted by tech investor Yuri Milner and funded by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, Alibaba’s Jack Ma, Sergey Brin, and 23andMe’s Anne Wojcicki. The awards started in 2012 with physics, then expanded to life sciences, and just this year added mathematics.
With a $3 million prize to each winning team, it’s the largest science award out there, by a good margin. But on top of the large price tag, it’s also got a streak of spectacle, as the Breakies (I’m trying out that as a nickname) are handed out at a black-tie event featuring A-list celebrities and tech superstars.
Exactly how the Breakies fit into the swelling body of big science prizes is still sort of taking shape, but the latest round of winners offers us a few more clues.
One development will make some in the physics community happy. Judges for the physics prize branched away from theoretical physics, in particular string theory, on which critics said judges placed too much emphasis. There was growing concern that the Breakies were neglecting experimental pursuits, but this year, two teams competing to measure dark energy and the expansion of the universe shared the prize.
Next, there’s some evidence building that this competition is targeted at well-established scientists with plenty of past recognition. While not the career capstone the Nobel often represents, and with prizes going to some younger recipients, winners continue to be decorated in their fields. The dark energy researchers previously won the Nobel in 2011 and the Shaw Prize in Astronomy in 2006. Winners in math (announced in the summer) have also previously won the Shaw Prize, the Fields Medal, and MacArthur genius awards.
That suggests that the Breakies won't emphasize new hotshots or underfunded researchers, but will instead hoist up accomplished scientists with a big, headline-grabbing boost. They do, however, have another category called the New Horizons Prizes, a much smaller award for up-and-comers in physics.
This strategy makes sense on some level, as founders are trying to create a kind of science celebrity. The Michael Jordans of physics. But on the other hand, as the goal is to draw more people to science, they run the risk of loading up a gallery of winners mainly representing the research establishment. And as we’ve noted in previous rounds, the Breakies have overwhelmingly gone to men.
However, we did see some teams led by women receive awards this year. Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won Life Sciences prizes for their work developing a new technology for editing genomes, each winning $3 million.
See the full list of the 2015 winners here.