Issue Date: November 23, 2015
An Unlikely Philanthropic Alliance
In case you are not familiar with this accolade, the Breakthrough Prize is a set of international awards bestowed in three categories (life sciences, fundamental physics, and mathematics) that recognize scientific advances and aim to inspire the next generation of scientists. I wasn’t that well acquainted with this prize, which in my defense is not that surprising given 2016 is only the prize’s third edition but then again is surprising if you consider the amount of money the award offers. Let me give you a bit of background.
The prize was founded in 2013 by Sergey Brin (Google); Anne Wojcicki (23andMe); Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and his wife, Priscilla Chan; and Yuri Milner (DST Global) and his wife, Julia Milner, all of whom were later joined by Jack Ma (Alibaba) and his wife, Cathy Zhang. This is an impressive lineup: Silicon Valley aristocracy joining Chinese elite to create an unlikely philanthropic alliance. Each of the main Breakthrough Prizes comes with a $3 million award, with a total of seven prizes being awarded for 2016. This makes it the most lucrative annual prize in the history of science.
The most lucrative but certainly not the most prestigious. There’s probably universal agreement that the most prestigious are the Nobel Prizes, each of which by contrast come with a reward that’s just about one-third of a Breakthrough’s $3 million.
In fact, many comparisons have been drawn between the Nobels and the Breakthrough Prizes beyond the financial, and the Breakthroughs have some positives. For example, there is no limit on the number of people who can share a prize (although if you are one of the 1,300 physicists who received this year’s physics prize for their work on neutrinos, you may feel a bit shortchanged). In contrast the Nobels cap it at three, with worthy winners potentially going unrecognized. The Breakthroughs also offer better transparency in their selection process, where anyone can nominate someone for a Breakthrough Prize via an online form and laureates of all prizes are chosen by selection committees comprising prior prize recipients. By comparison the Nobels accept nomination by invitation only. Also, the Breakthrough Prizes aim to honor scientists who are still in their prime, whereas the Nobels often go to retired scientists for research that could be decades old.
But there are also negatives, and here is where for us chemists it gets ugly: Although we have a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, our subject is completely off the table with the Breakthrough Prize. How can this be, I wonder, when chemistry is the central science? It seems clear that the focus for Zuckerberg and friends is applied science with an emphasis on medical research—that is, curing intractable diseases and extending human life. So once again even when a lot of chemistry goes into making many of the discoveries in this area possible, there is no direct recognition of the role our science plays in the awards.
Despite this, I think Zuckerberg et al. and their Breakthrough Prize will continue to steal limelight from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and their Nobel awards. The winners are announced just days before the Oscars, and the award-giving ceremony, which promised to bring together “the brightest stars from the worlds of science, technology, and Hollywood,” is a taste of that world. The show was broadcast at the beginning of November, and it was spectacular. For those of you who missed it, it was held at NASA’s Hangar One in California, with the prizes being presented by celebrities such as Hilary Swank, Russell Crowe, Kate Hudson, and Christina Aguilera; Seth MacFarlane acted as master of ceremonies. In true Oscar fashion there was also musical entertainment, which came courtesy of Pharrell Williams. One of the other highlights included a video link with astronaut Scott Kelly aboard the International Space Station. The somber Nobel ceremony pales in comparison. I think there is a place for the Breakthrough Prizes as somewhat of a reinvention of the Nobels. That’s it: Where the Nobel Prizes and the 21st century meet. Pity chemistry is not recognized. Maybe we can persuade Mr. Zuckerberg to create a Breakthrough Prize in Chemistry. Does anyone have his number?
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.
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