It’s not every day that Hollywood celebrities line up to honor the world’s best scientists. But stars of the screen recently convened at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California to hand out prizes to 14 biologists, physicists, and mathematicians, including three from Massachusetts.
The awards, called the Breakthrough Prizes, were founded by a Who’s Who of entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley technorati, with an inaugural fundamental physics prize in 2012. They are aimed at honoring achievement and fostering general interest in science, with winners chosen by laureates. While the prizes are new, they dwarf better-known prizes such as the Nobel in at least one way: Each Breakthrough winner receives $3 million.
Victor Ambros, a biologist from the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, and Gary Ruvkun, a biologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, won Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences for their discovery of a new way in which gene activity is regulated. This adds to a long list of honors for Ambros and Ruvkun, whose work on short stretches of genetic material called microRNAs is frequently mentioned as a contender for a Nobel Prize.
Jacob Lurie, a mathematician from Harvard University who won a MacArthur “genius” award earlier this year, won a Breakthrough Prize in mathematics.
The scientists and mathematicians honored and the entrepreneurs who provide the funds are probably less well known than some of the actors who participated in the ceremony: Jon Hamm, Cameron Diaz, Seth MacFarlane, and Benedict Cumberbatch, among others.
Whether or not you think basic insights about the accelerating expansion of the universe and the fundamental way genes turn on and off should be elevated by the presence of celebrities, it’s cool to see science and math being celebrated as part of the culture.
Ambros, reached by telephone in California the day after the ceremony, said that it has become clear that the entrepreneurs who founded the award have very specific hopes that the money will help bridge the gap between scientists and the general public.
“I think that their expectation is that each of us who are receiving the award will find some way to make it count in some ways more than perhaps an average award would,’’ Ambros said. “I think there’s a certain amount of expectation that each of us will go back and work harder . . . on activities such as outreach, education, policy advocacy, and other things.”
The Breakthrough Prizes have been interesting to observe. The award ceremony is obviously pitched at a different audience than the one held in Stockholm around this time each year. As the name and the general Silicon Valley vibe suggest, the awards seem aimed at spurring science forward, rather than serving as a kind of career coronation that the Nobels have become.
“The world faces many fundamental challenges today, and there are many amazing scientists, researchers, and engineers helping us solve them,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said in a statement. “This year’s Breakthrough Prize winners have made discoveries that will help cure disease and move the world forward. They deserve to be recognized as heroes.”
But the list of winners suggests that they may be steering straight into the same criticism faced by the Nobels: that they’re just another check being written to people who have achieved great stature in their fields. Though this year’s winners may not be household names, many of them are decorated veteran scientists who have already transformed their fields, the kinds of people who have won, or very probably will win, other prominent awards. The Breakthrough Prize Foundation did hand out seven $100,000 awards to junior physicists, but that is dwarfed by the $3 million handed out to each Breakthrough Prize recipient.
For some observers, this raises the question of whether such awards are really the best investment to foster scientific breakthroughs and public interest in science. Silicon Valley, after all, doesn’t succeed by handing out billion-dollar prizes to companies that have already succeeded. They make bets on future leaders, like Zuckerberg, who just might.
If these entrepreneurs want to get the biggest bang for their buck, a more radical breakthrough might be a funding model more in keeping with their own track record of success.