These Science Prizes Aren't Flashy, But the Winners Are Impressive. So Is the Money

The Gruber Prizes aren’t the highest-profile philanthropic awards for research, but are quite prestigious nonetheless, and offer $500,000 a pop for exciting work in cosmology, neuroscience and genetics. 

It’s a crowded arena these days when it comes to science awards, and the Gruber Prizes aren’t as flashy as the Breakthrough or as historic as the Nobel. But they’re nothing to shake a stick at, handing out a total of $1.5 million to three recipients annually. 

Related:The Perils of All These Prizes

It's kind of crazy that a half-million dollar prize sounds small when compared to the $3 million each from Yuri Milner’s suite of science prizes, or the $100 million competition MacArthur just launched, for that matter. But taking a step back from the philanthropic award arms race we’re experiencing, a Gruber is a hell of a thing for an accomplished investigator to take home. 

Funded with the wealth of Peter and Patricia Gruber—the former a successful investor in emerging Latin American economies who passed away in 2014—the prizes are one of a few programs of the Gruber Foundation. The funder also backs work in women’s rights and justice, and a fellowship program at Yale—the university has housed the foundation since the couple handed it over in 2011. The science prizes award “contemporary individuals whose groundbreaking work provides new models that inspire and enable fundamental shifts in knowledge.”

Setting aside the prize money, the Gruber laureates are an impressive bunch to be a part of since the foundation kicked off the awards, starting with cosmology in 2000, soon after adding genetics, and then neuroscience in 2004.

Last year, for example, the genetics prize went to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, researchers who gained fame and several accolades for their creation of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology. Past cosmology winners include Alan Guth and Andrei Linde for their groundbreaking work on the theory of cosmic inflation. 

The 2016 winners were announced this summer:

  • Neuroscientist Mu-Ming Poo was awarded for his breakthroughs in the study of brain plasticity, or the ability to change or strengthen neural connections in response to the outside world.
  • Michael Grunstein and C. David Allis shared the genetics price for their work in gene regulation, and discoveries that genetic coding isn’t just a result of inherited DNA, but also how it interacts with surrounding proteins. 
  • In cosmology, Ronald Drever, Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss, and the LIGO discovery team nabbed the prize for their historic observation of gravitational waves, as predicted in Einstein’s theories. 

Notably, the Gruber Prizes reward career contributions, as well as the headline-making breakthroughs. And you can also see from the winners that in all cases, the prizes go to researchers who are reshaping how we look at fundamental aspects of science, in three categories that are, overall, rapidly advancing our understanding of the world.