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Silicon Valley Billionaires Eclipse Nobel Prize, Send $33 Million to Unsuspecting Scientists

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Yuri Milner, billionaire Silicon Valley investor, recently joined forces with tech titans Art Levinson, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and their wives Anne Wojcicki (founder of 23andMe) and Priscilla Chan to shower riches on a group of unsuspecting scientists. The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (Breakthrough Prize) awarded eleven researchers a total of $33 million ($3 million apiece) for their work in cancer, gene therapy, and stem cell research.

The Breakthrough Prize now joins Milner’s Fundamental Physics Prize—which awarded $27 million ($3 million each) to nine physicists last August—in a new line of Silicon Valley funded philanthropy whose aim is to shine a light on science.

For those keeping count, between the Fundamental Physics Prize (FPP) and the Breakthrough Prize, Yuri Milner, et al., have given away $60 million in science awards to 20 scientists in the last six months. Why? Because, say the benefactors, science and scientists don’t get enough love.

Zuckerberg told assembled journalists at the Breakthrough Prize’s inaugural press conference, “Our society needs more heroes that are scientists and researchers and engineers.” The prize, they hope, will inspire and incent the next generation to study and go into science as a career. Too many students may look at pure research as a life of thankless work and meager pay.

The winning scientists were mostly researchers at US institutions, though two international winners hailed from Japan and the Netherlands. The prize rewards work specifically targeted at curing diseases and longevity—the inaugural group made contributions to the study of cancer, neurology, and gene therapy. (See here for the full list.)

Like the Fundamental Physics Prize, the previous year’s winners of the Breakthrough Prize will form a committee to choose the next year’s winners. Anyone may be nominated for the prize and individuals may win multiple prizes. Unlike the Fundamental Physics Prize, which will award one $3 million prize annually, the Breakthrough Prize will award five $3 million prizes each year.

Milner said, “Solving the enormous complexity of human diseases calls for a much bigger effort compared to fundamental physics and therefore requires multiple sponsors to reward outstanding achievements.”

The $3 million payout is the world’s biggest, outstripping even the Nobel Prize. However, while it’s hard to argue against sending cash to a few well-deserving scientists—whether these prizes will actually work to raise scientists to hero status or lure more students to a life of research is a touch dubious.

Why, for example, didn’t bright minds like Zuckerberg, Brin, or Wojcicki go into pure research? Why did Wall Street lure so many mathematicians and physicists away from the lab in the last few decades? And what do these prizes really do that’s so different from the wide variety of science prizes already on the market?

Students at Harvard or Stanford will continue to worship at the shrine of Google and Facebook with or without the FPP and Breakthrough Prize. The outside chance a researcher will be one of the many thousands to win the award won’t much change the calculus behind whether they’ll start their own business or stick with research. (Though, often the latter precedes the former.)

But hey, they're announcing $33 million in prizes here. Lofty words and idealistic sentiments are befitting. Those admirable few diligently building humankind’s understanding of our world one discovery at a time do deserve more recognition—and a few million bucks is pretty nice too.

Image Credit: Paige Powers/Flicker (featured image), ReutersRedRobotWorld/YouTube (banner, body) 

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving onto science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 2 Responses

  • Che Mort March 6, 2013 on 1:06 pm

    This is the wave of the future. Private prizes and funding.

  • astrofinch March 13, 2013 on 12:48 am

    Meh, starting a business is a bit of a lottery in the same way research is.

    If I was a multibillionaire, I’d probably try to figure out some way to bring about Chinese democracy. Without China’s economic support, we’d likely see the collapse of North Korea and its nuclear weapons program. China also seems to have feuds with many nations (Japan, Korea, Vietnam), so a democratic Chinese regime could lead to a reset of diplomatic relations with those countries and increased global stability.

    You can imagine as the next century progresses, many potentially dangerous technologies may get invented (nano, bio, AI). If there’s a US/China arms race for these technologies, it’s less likely that safety precautions will be taken in their development. Chinese democracy could mean a lower chance of an arms race.

    Of course, this would be a covert operation that wouldn’t be covered on SingularityHub :) And I’m woefully uninformed on geopolitics, so any billionaire readers should do their own research… this is just an idea for them!

    Another idea is to lobby for legalization of Robin Hanson’s prediction markets idea, which could be revolutionary.