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Breakthrough Prize floors winners with sheer amount of money

Posted by , on 20 February 2013

One Million DollarsEleven biologists received some unbelievable news this week: They will each receive 3 MILLION dollars from a newly established award. The Breakthrough Prize was founded by Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) , Sergey Brin (Google) and venture capitalist Yuri Milner, with the goal of supporting research into life extension and curing diseases.

Among the eleven winners are stem cell researchers Hans Clevers and Shinya Yamanaka. Other winners are Cori Bargmann, David Botstein, Lewis Cantley, Titia de Lange, Napoleone Ferrara, Eric Lander, Charles Sawyers, Bert Vogelstein and Robert Weinberg,

The Guardian interviewed several of the winners, and they’re all just floored by the ridiculous amount of money. Almost literally floored, even. “I almost fell over”, said Lewis Cantley, and Cori Bargmann “had to sit down on the floor for a while”.

While it’s great that there is a new source of funding for biomedical research, and these are definitely very worthy winners, I question the scale of the awards. I think it shows the level of disconnect between Silicon Valley and biology researchers: To the foundation, 3 million dollars per person appears to be a normal award amount, but I bet all eleven winners would have been just as happy, and far less shocked and confused, with even 10% of the money – which would be closer to the sort of amounts they’re used to receiving after a lot of hard work and grant-writing.

Breakthrough scientific research doesn’t come from just a handful of scientists who have already made a name for themselves, but from collaborations between many researchers. While I’m thrilled that the tech community has shown a real interest in the life sciences, I would have liked to see slightly smaller individual prizes, and maybe some money made available by the standard process of application and review to emerging labs, researchers, and initiatives. Preserving a broad network of researchers may in the long run be more rewarding than only awarding the top talent.

The winners seem to be allowed to spend the money any way they want to, though, and I’m excited to see what they come up with. I have some confidence that they will do their best to spread the wealth. Hans Clevers already mentioned plans to use some of his prize money to host a symposium for 150 invited collaborators in Amsterdam, which is something we definitely hope to hear more about.


(Image credit: Juan Barahona on Flickr.)

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Categories: Discussion, Funding, News

4 thoughts on “Breakthrough Prize floors winners with sheer amount of money”

  1. But here’s the thing: these are PRIZES, not research grants. They cna buy a car and pay off the mortgage with these, as with a Nobel, Shaw, Gairdner Prize. Statements such as “a new source of funding for biomedical research”, “standard process of application and review to emerging labs, researchers, and initiatives”, “seem to be allowed to spend the money any way they want to,” implies that these are research grants, for their lab. They are not, they are cash prizes that accompany a recognition of success. So it has nothing more to do with “only awarding the top talent” than any other research prize, big money or not.

    1. I think I just question the entire thing. I don’t think prizes were the best way to show support of life science research. According to the Guardian piece (and an older one abut the physics prize), they seem to think that showing that science can be glamorous and rewarding would motivate young scientists.

      It seems to suggest that they think that a lack of motivation or a lack of dreams is currently keeping people from going into the life sciences and pursuing the noble fight against various diseases, when in fact there are more people interested in working in biomedical research than there are currently positions for.

      I’m happy for the winners, and it’s a really great selection of people, but I don’t think anyone else became extra motivated to work harder on their own research with the dream of being one of the winners later. And even if they did, how WOULD they work harder when either they or their collaborators are having trouble just keeping their labs running?

      Related: “Philantropy: You’re Doing it Wrong”


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