11 scientists are each $3 million richer than they were earlier this week thanks to the "Breakthrough Prize" that was launched Wednesday by a group of tech-lebrities including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, and tech investor Yuri Milner. It’s the latest in a trend of business leaders offering big science prizes. But how do prizes like these actually impact research?
The theory behind the prize goes something like this: As Zuckerberg and friends know all too well, in the world of computer science and information technology, if you make a breakthrough, you can make a lot of money. But not so in other branches of science -- things like cancer research, neurology, or the genetics of disease.
“We think that's a market failure,” Zuckerberg told the BBC. And that’s where the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences comes in. Zuckerberg hopes the prize will be an incentive to pursue a career in what have long been "less lucrative" branches of science.
“If you're a young kid growing up, you're going to look to what the market says about where you can make money” Zuckerberg says, “to inform what you dream about being when you grow up.”
But prizes like this one and the Nobel, known as “recognition prizes” because they reward people after a long career of success, have limited impact, says Stian Westlake, head of research at Nesta, a non-profit Innovation Lab based in Britain.
“The reward is such a long way off that it makes it harder to mobilize other resources, and it makes it less motivational,” Westlake says.
David Shaywitz, Director of Strategic and Commercial Planning at pharmaceutical company Theravance, agrees.
“They're rewarding the folks who are already the superheros and rock stars of science. Within science, they're the ones everyone already, desperately wants to be,” he wrote in an email. “There's already a perception that science is pretty great at the top. The real challenge is funding limitations along the way, and how many highly talented young scientists scramble for traction.”
Shaywitz and Westlake say what’s more effective for stimulating innovation are prizes with precise goals that people can accomplish in order to win.
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