You Know What’s Cool? $3 million

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In science it is, anyway. As Eric S. Lander– one of the eleven winners of the first Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences – explains, this is a “staggering” amount of money for a scientist. Lander is a leader of the Human Genome Project, and in an interview quoted in the New York Times he told of how he planned on using the prize money to help pay for new approaches to teaching biology online.

The winners of what is now the world’s richest academic prize for medicine and biology – more than twice the amount of the Nobel Prize – work mostly in areas advancing cancer research, but Cornelia I. Bargmann’s work on nervous system and behaviour was also recognised, as was Dr. Shinya Yamanaka’s groundbreaking research on developing stem cells.

This follows from the establishment of the Fundamental Physics Prize – also worth $3 million – awarded to 9 scientists last July. It’s the brainchild of Russian Billionaire investor, entrepreneur and philanthropist Yuri Milner, who himself was a Physics student. Inaugural winners includedAlexei Kitaev,  Maxim Kontsevich, and Ashoke Sen.

Previous winners will help make decisions on future awards, and both prizes – as well as a $100,000 award to honour promising young researchers – will now be awarded annually to people who “think big, take risks and have made a significant impact on our lives.”

But while the physics prize was funded exclusively by Mr Milner, who personally chose the first batch of winners, for the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences he partnered with a select group of Internet tycoons. Apple chairman Arthur D. Levison helped in the selection process while Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and his wife Anne Wojcicki – founder of genetics company 23andMe were also involved and donated towards the $33 million prize fund.

Mark Zuckerberg told GigaOM that he believes society needs more hero scientist, researchers and engineers: “The things that we talk about in the media and the things the market rewards has a big influence on what the next generation of people growing up will choose to do and I think it’s really important that a lot of the smartest people go and choose to solve these problems and go into these lines of work.”

In a world obsessed with film, music and sports celebrities, the goal is to “move the needle” of public awareness and give scientists who have significantly contributed to the advancement of human knowledge a chance at the limelight. The foundation’s website will soon be accepting nominations for the next batch of prizes, and anyone can send one in. There are no limits as to age or how many people can share a prize. Also, people can win more than once. “If you’re Einsten,” said Mr Milner, “you will be getting three.”

Do you think that prizes such as the Life Sciences Breakthrough and the Fundamental Physics Prize have the potential to inspire more young people to pursue a scientific career? Is it fair to single out researchers for such large prizes or would it be more productive to fund their area of research directly rather than individuals? Does the fact that most winners are male and from the US represent a problem? What are your thoughts on the researchers who have been recognized so far and their contribution to science? Please let us know what you think by leaving a comment below or joining the conversation on Twitter or Facebook.

One thought on “You Know What’s Cool? $3 million

  1. I think it’s great that the sciences are getting attention and that these world-famous billionaires are supporting innovation. I also understand that this money is supposed to inspire people to want to be scientists, but the idea of ‘superstar’ scientists getting tons of funding for projects bothers me a little. Could that money do more good if it were spread around to a few scientists that were doing real, applicable research that was maybe less inspiring but more helpful?

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