The Nobel Prizes have more history behind them, but a new generation of life science prizes awarded to two local scientists has a bigger payday: at $3 million per prize, more than twice the money.
The brand-new Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, sponsored by a small cadre of technology’s elite, were given to 11 scientists on Wednesday. Among those honored and enriched were two scientists who have long taught an introductory biology class together at MIT: Eric S. Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute and a key player in the Human Genome Project, and Robert Weinberg, a cancer biologist from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, an MIT-affiliated research institution.
Weinberg, who is best known for discovering the first cancer-causing gene in humans, said when he first got a phone call from the chairman of the board of the prize foundation, Arthur Levinson, he didn’t believe it.
“I thought it a joke — after all how often do you get a call from someone who says that you’re going to receive three Big Ones?” Weinberg wrote in an e-mail.
Yuri Milner, a Russian entrepreneur who is one of the sponsors of the new prize, created a stir in the world of big league science awards last summer when he created the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation and handed out $3 million prizes to nine surprised physicists.
Now, Milner has banded together with a group of Silicon Valley leaders to launch the life sciences award, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Google cofounder Sergey Brin, and 23andMe cofounder Anne Wojcicki.
Lander said in an e-mail that he doesn’t know what exactly to do with the money, but that he will take seriously a charge laid out in the prize letter from Milner, exhorting winners to communicate their work to the general public.
Lander is about to teach a free online biology class, and is partnering with major teaching organizations to find ways to adapt the material and make it useful in high school classrooms. He plans to use some of the funds to support that effort, helping turn an experiment in virtual college education into a tangible improvement in the real-life classroom experience of students taking math and science classes across the country.