Big money science prizes: How effective are they?

Opinion by Ramya Balasingam
Feb. 16, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

The $3 million dollar Breakthrough prize, created by a group of billionaires that included Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Ma and Yuri Milner, seeks to “celebrate the best scientific work and inspire the next generation of scientists. However, despite the noble goals expressed in its slogan, since its inception, the Breakthrough Prize has generated controversy—and perhaps rightfully so.

Most recently, Lawrence Krauss, a well-known popular physics author, wrote an article in the New Yorker discussing the flaws of big money prizes. Krauss discusses the differences between Nobel prizes and an assortment of new science and technology prizes like the Breakthrough Prize. He notes that large sums of money are not enough to bring respectability to the new prizes; the Nobel Prize has an extensive legacy, and winning it still remains the ultimate goal of every ambitious researcher. One of the main reasons Nobel Prizes are held in such high esteem is “the care that is given to the selection of the winners.” Krauss implies that the Breakthrough Prize lacks prestige because its selection process might be insufficiently rigorous.

This prize has, however, introduced a new element into the way scientific accomplishment is usually recognized: glamor.  The Breakthrough Award Ceremony has Hollywood celebrities giving awards to winners and the ceremony is televised on the National Geographic Channel. This past year, Seth MacFarlane, a Hollywood comedian and actor, hosted and Pharrell Williams performed. Given this image, Krauss says that it seems as though one of goals of the Breakthrough Prize is to make science “sexier,” and thereby “entice more talented young people” to become scientists.  

Philip Ball, a science writer based in the UK, agrees with the premise of the Breakthrough Prize that the prestige of science must be elevated, noting that most people can “reel off scores of Hollywood and sports stars, but would struggle to name any living physicist, besides Stephen Hawking. However, he worries that the kind of publicity that the big prizes bring to science might actually be damaging because it implies that scientific progress “relies on sudden, lone breakthroughs by great individuals.”

In reality, most often, modern science requires large teams, deliberate planning and many years of dedicated effort to produce results. Unlike other fields that have a better track record of creating celebrities, the pursuit of science promises exciting lifelong careers for a large number of people, but at the same time is one that requires hard work and strong team effort to obtain success, which makes success in scientific research a rarity. Thus, a different approach is called for in promoting science amongst the youth and the public at large.

Krauss raises a further objection, saying that regardless of how much money is poured into big money prizes, it will “always be considered a consolation prize.” Krauss argues that scientists do not “go through a decade of advanced education and a lifetime of hard work in the hopes that they might win a science lottery and shake Russell Crowe’s hand.”

Krauss suggests that perhaps a more worthwhile use of money would be for billionaires to fund the science itself. He uses the example of particle physics—an esoteric realm of science —in which Breakthrough Prizes have been awarded. Government funding in this area has been cut back substantially over the past several years; the twenty-seven million dollar prize awarded in this field could perhaps have been put to better use funding about three hundred postdoctoral fellowships, which would double the current number of young researchers in the field. Thus, Krauss suggests that “would-be billionaire prize-makers” should set up foundations that could fund the research of young scientists, which would have an impact on the scientific community at-large.

Though having an Oscars-like science award ceremony might prove to be an interesting way to attract viewers and boost celebrity reputations, I believe, like Krauss, that funding the science programs targeted at increasing the number of young scientists entering underfunded fields will be more beneficial. Hopefully billionaires recognize this and, instead of contributing to a lavish award that does not do much to advance science fields, will consider donating to organizations that inspire young scientists and researchers to strive for their goals.

Contact Ramya Balsingam at ramyab ‘at’

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