Thursday, September 12, 2013

New big science prizes - time for nominations and opinions

There are large, endowed prizes in a number of disciplines.  The most famous of all are the Nobel prizes, of course, and in the sciences at least (chemistry, physics, and medicine), being awarded a Nobel is a singular crowning achievement.  A huge amount has been written about the Nobels - if you want to learn how they came to be, and at the same time become extremely disillusioned about the process for the early awards (my goodness I hope it's better these days - it seems like it must be), I recommend The Politics of Excellence.   The purpose of the Nobel is to reward a major, transformative (to use the NSF's favorite word) intellectual achievement.  The money is not meant to be a research grant.  (Similar in spirit is the Fields Medal for mathematics, though that is much less money and purposefully directed at younger researchers.)

The MacArthur Fellowships are another well-known set of awards.  These are known in popular parlance as "Genius Grants", and unlike the Nobels are (apparently) intended not so much as a financial reward, but as a liberating resource, a grant that can provide the winner with the financial freedom to continue to excel.  In some disciplines (the arts and the humanities in particular) this can completely change the financial landscape for the winners.   Awards that go directly toward furthering the creative ends of the recipients are clearly great things.

In recent years, a couple of new, very large awards have been created, and it's interesting to consider whether this is a good thing.  The Kavli Foundation is awarding prizes every other year in Neuroscience, Astrophysics, and Nanoscience.  To nominate someone, see here.   In spirit, these seem much like the Nobels, with awards so far going to extremely well regarded people, and not meant to function as direct research support.

In more flamboyant style, Yuri Milner has endowed the Fundamental Physics Prizes, also not meant to function as research grants.    What really distinguishes these latest, apart from the sheer magnitude of the awards ($3M each), is that they have largely gone to high energy physics theorists whose work has not been confirmed by experiment (in contrast to theoretical physics Nobel awards).  More recently there has been a special award to the LHC experimentalists, and some related prizes to condensed matter theorists.  However, the idea of giving very large prizes for unconfirmed theoretical work is controversial.  In essence, is something a "scientific breakthrough" if it's not confirmed by experiment, or is it very exciting math?  Perhaps this is just a labeling issue, but it is hard not to be unsettled by the willingness of some to try to detach science from experimental tests.

Is the scientific community better off from having more of these kinds of prizes?  Certainly it makes sense to consider awards for fields not recognized by the Nobel Foundation.  Nobels have gravitas because of their long established history, but that does not mean that there shouldn't be an analogous prize for, e.g., computer science.  Likewise, anything positive about the sciences that gets public attention is probably a net good.  However, prizes will lose their meaning if there are too many, and making some of them destabilizingly large amounts of money is not necessarily great.   It's also not clear quite what the point is if the same people win multiple large prizes for the same work.   For example, it's credible that Alan Guth could win a Nobel in addition and a Kavli astrophysics prize in addition to the Fundamental Physics prize.    I always tell would-be scientists not to get into this if they're after the big prize at the end - that's not the point of the enterprise, and I'd hate to see that change.  It's also hard for me to believe that the existence of these prizes is going to get the public or students materially more interested in the sciences.   Somehow prizes that go toward helping people continue their work or recognize a career of achievement seem more sound to me, but I remain ambivalent.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have mixed feelings about these prizes. On the other hand, they liberate the recipients financially, which, I think, is a good thing, because it allows at least these people to do truly original research and think big instead of chasing grants. On the other hand, these prizes create a culture of hero worship, which I feel is detrimental to science. First of all because it creates fashions out of the research of the Nobel prize winners which homogenizes the research. Secondly, because it, paradoxically, discourages young people from science when they see these big thinkers blown out of proportion by the media and think that to make remarkable research, you have to be some sort of superhuman.