Opinion: Big prizes are bad for science | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 02.11.2018
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Opinion: Big prizes are bad for science

The Breakthrough Prize may be the "Oscars of Science." It's certainly one of the richest awards. But DW's Zulfikar Abbany says big prizes risk leaving out fields of research and ignoring some researchers.

Breakthrough Prize 2017 James McKernan (Getty Images/K. Sullivan)

Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics Laureate James McKernan attends the ceremony at NASA Ames Research Center in 2017

"People want heroes," is how a top-ranking German astrophysicist, Karsten Danzmann, put it in 2017 when I asked him how he felt about that year's Nobel Prize in Physics. The prize was awarded to just three out of thousands who had all helped scientists at the LIGO detectors in the US spot gravitational waves for the first time.

"The impact of the prize on society is much larger," said Danzmann, "if you live with this shortcoming."

And it was a shortcoming with which he was willing to live.

Read more: Scientists are 'rotten forecasters' of the future

In another world, Danzmann may have himself been one of the winners — he's been integral to global research on gravitational waves. But Nobel Prizes only ever go to a maximum of three people, and the committee landed on Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne.

"You find a victim and say, okay, that's the person," said Danzmann. "And they have to sacrifice themselves for a year and bear the burden of the media hype for a good cause." 

So "it's all good," isn't it? Perhaps if you stick to the science. But let's look a little deeper.

Genetics scientists Emanuelle Charpentier (left) and Jennifer A. Doudna (right) at the Breakthrough Prize Awards in 2014

If the Nobel committee is scared of the gene-editing technology CRISPR-Cas 9, the Breakthrough Prize is not: Genetics scientists Emanuelle Charpentier (left) and Jennifer A. Doudna (right) were at the Breakthrough Prize Awards in 2014

The Nobel Prize was as close as its founder, Alfred Nobel, could get to a posthumous conscience-washing. The award has sought since 1901 to atone for the Nobel family legacy of having invented a raft of killing tools, like dynamite.

So when we mark the Nobel Prizes each year, which we journalists dutifully do, we not only laud the new laureates and their work, but we also simultaneously present the reclusive Alfred Nobel as the world's solitary do-gooder. He may well have been a man of some good, albeit a late bloomer. But the hype ignores all the other stuff.

And that's just the Nobel Prize. Once seen as the only science prize worth winning, it's now no longer as much of a loner as its namesake.

Even a cursory glance at Wikipedia's "List of science and technology awards" — allow me that lazy shorthand in my research — indicates a bloated field.

Allowing for some doubles, where the respective organizations award prizes in more than one scientific discipline, there are about 48 astronomy prizes, 23 in aviation and space technology, 14 for biochemistry, over 100 prizes in health care sciences, and around the same again in chemistry, biology, engineering, mathematics, physics, and various others in oceanography, and the odd overlooked field like paleontology and … oh … computer science. 

British Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees

British Astronomer Royal Martin Rees is no fan of science prizes, but he is a fan of new entries like the Breakthrough and Gruber prizes 'diluting' the primacy of the Nobel Prize

These new prizes bring new problems.

For a start, with such a rich list, we can't see the science for all the awards. Is it any wonder that we maintain a US/Euro-centric vision of "what is science" and what's important for human development? Quite naturally, then, (or not), it follows that we may never know or even care that Nigeria has its own national prize for science. Who even knew they did science, right? Well, they do. And what about all the awards specifically for women in science, around 50 if we trust Wikipedia, and that includes the Elizabeth Blackwell Medal.

Read more: Eyeing a 'third woman' at the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics

Granted, there are plenty of women in science who would rather not be "women in science" but the higher form of a simple scientist, without any reference to their gender. But you probably get the point: We ignore a lot of potentially good science and scientists.  

Still, as far as I can tell, one of the greatest issues — if not dangers — inherent in science prizes is that so many of them are initiated and funded by Western industry and "devil-may-care" futurists who got da power to do whatever they like.

So no matter whether they come with grandiose mission statements, like Nobel's "science that benefits humanity," they also come with a very specific worldview of what and who constitutes humanity, and just how and whom that science should benefit. It puts the prize initiators front and center, as though they alone may determine our future.

If you think this is just paranoid drivel, take a look at the Breakthrough Prize, which holds an awards' ceremony on Sunday, November 4.

US musician Alicia Keys singing at the 2016 Breakthrough Prize ceremony in Silicon Valley

US musician Alicia Keys singing at the 2016 Breakthrough Prize ceremony in Silicon Valley

Established in 2012 by Russian scientist — and moneymaker — Yuri Milner, the Breakthrough Prize is credited with having brought new wind into the landscape. It dubs itself "The Oscars of Science." Last year's ceremony was presented by actor Morgan Freeman . This year's will feature former James Bond star Pierce Brosnan and musician Lionel Richie. (For the under-30s: They were famous ... once.)

Each prize "is" $3 million (€2.6 million). Check the wording there. It's all about the money. And what a can of worms it will be when we investigate how that prize money is spent or audited.

But I digress. Britain's Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, has said that "glitzy academic prizes" provoke ambivalence among researchers.

"This has only been intensified by the slew of new awards set up in recent years by wealthy donors," he wrote in a 2017 edition of Times Higher Education, "some of which are promoted with a razzmatazz that celebrates the donor as much as the awardees."  

In general, though, Rees welcomes the emergence of new prizes because it "dilutes the primacy of the Nobel Prizes." He also likes them because they recognize hitherto under-represented fields, like philosophy, and because newbies like the Breakthrough Prize, and the Gruber Prize, award "all team members," unlike the Nobel Prizes.

Breakthrough Prize co-founders Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook

Fancy fulfilling someone else's vision? Win a Breakthrough Prize, co-founded by Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and his wife Priscilla Chan

But I'd like to add a word of caution. Taking the Breakthrough Prize as our example, look closer at the donors. They include such tech demigods as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, Google's Sergey Brin and his "genomics pioneering" ex-wife  (quote: Wikipedia) Anne Wojcicki, and Alibaba's Jack and Pony Ma. Their number even include(d) that whacky "Starshot" scientist, Stephen Hawking. (Yes, I did just write ill of the dead.)

And gawd, I can't resist but to continue: What a dog and pony show?! These folk certainly enjoy the limelight.

There's just one good thing about that, and that is that we have a better-than-rough idea of how they want to see the world develop over the next decade or two. Now that needn't be such an issue if you happen to agree with their singular worldview — and I do mean singular in the sense of Ray Kurzweil's theory of Singularity. But if you find yourself as a young scientist dependent on funding from pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer or glitzy science awards or even the dusty ones, there's a fair bet you will tailor your research to those fields that happen to prop up the vision of your donors, especially the very rich ones.

Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who was part of the Breakthrough Starshot initiative before he died in 2018

What's more important, Professor Hawking? Getting to Alpha Centauri or discovering treatments for dementia?

Ergo, theirs becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and a bunch of other, potentially vital research, most probably that which would only benefit the meek in our planet's remotest regions and communities, is left totally untouched. And I can't see how that benefits humanity at all.


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