Breakthrough prizes may elevate scientists to rock-star status, showering the finest minds in science with lucrative awards!
No one becomes a scientist to make themselves rich, but for a growing minority at the top of their game, big money has found them regardless.
At a lavish ceremony in California on Sunday night, more than 60 biologists, physicists and mathematicians shared prizes worth $36m (£23m) for work that has broken important ground. Eleven of the scientists who won Breakthrough awards received $3m each, more than twice the cash value of the Nobel prize.
Held at Hangar One, an enormous former airship station run by Nasa in Silicon Valley, the event was hosted by Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy and executive producer of the 2014 remake of the Carl Sagan series, Cosmos. Eddie Redmayne, who plays Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything biopic, presented the physics prize, with Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and Benedict Cumberbatch, the lead in the Alan Turing film The Imitation Game, handing out maths prizes. The actors Cameron Diaz, Kate Beckinsale and the inventor and space pioneer Elon Musk were among the other presenters.
Yuri Milner, a Russian entrepreneur who abandoned a PhD in physics and made $1bn through investments in internet companies, established the first Breakthrough prize in 2012 when he awarded nine physicists $27m for their work on fundamental theory. He has since joined forces with the families of Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, who co-founded Google, and Jack Ma, China’s richest man and founder of Alibaba Group, to fund similar Breakthrough prizes in maths and the life sciences.
By showering some of the finest minds in science with lucrative prizes at glitzy events, Milner and the Silicon Valley stars hope to elevate science and its practitioners to rock-star status in a society obsessed with celebrity. The winners of this year’s prizes form selection committees that will go on to decide next year’s recipients.
“The world faces many fundamental challenges today and there are many amazing scientists, researchers and engineers helping us solve them,” Zuckerberg said in a statement. “This year’s Breakthrough prize winners have made discoveries that will help cure disease and move the world forward. They deserve to be recognised as heroes.”
Jennifer Doudna at the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Germany, received prizes worth $3m each. They unravelled the mystery of a microbial defence mechanism called Crispr/Cas9 that protects bacteria from invading viruses. What began as fundamental research led to the development of a powerful technique to rewrite genomes, including human DNA. Most of the winners were told of their good fortune before the prize-giving ceremony. “I was thrilled and shocked and very excited,” Doudna told the Guardian. “We published our work in 2012 and none of us could have predicted how transformative it has been.”
The bacterial defence mechanism identifies strands of DNA belonging to invading viruses and unleashes an enzyme, Cas9, to cut up the genetic material. The damage is sufficient to destroy the virus. But properly harnessed, the same biological trick can be employed to rewrite faulty DNA: damaging genes can be removed and replaced with healthy ones.
Work is already under way to use Crispr/Cas9 to correct genetic faults that cause cystic fibrosis and genetic blood disorders.
“We will see this approach being used for disorders caused by single gene defects first of all, but in the longer term, it will become possible to think about other disorders where multiple genes are involved,” Doudna said.
Asked what she intended to do with her winnings, Doudna said she was still working out the specifics, but added: “I want to do something to further the application of this technique to benefit human society.”
Four other biologists landed prizes worth $3m each. Alim Louis Benabid at Joseph Fourier University was honoured for developing deep brain stimulation (DBS), a procedure that has revolutionised the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.
C David Allis at the Rockefeller University was rewarded for his work on gene regulation in cancer and other diseases. Victor Ambros at the University of Massachusetts medical school and Gary Ruvkun at Massachusetts general hospital won for separate work on gene regulation.
“When you decide to pursue a very basic problem in life sciences like gene regulation, you never expect to receive a prize as remarkable as the Breakthrough Prize. It shows how wonderful a career in science is,” said Allis. “It is a true reward that some of our work is now helping people live healthier lives. This is our ultimate goal.”
Five of the world’s leading mathematicians won prizes for significant contributions to their field. Two British researchers, Simon Donaldson and Richard Taylor, who spend all or much of their time in the US, were among them. As a student, Taylor, who works at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, helped the Oxford mathematician Andrew Wiles crack Fermat’s last theorem.
The names of the maths prize winners were announced earlier this year.
The Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics honoured Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess for a collaboration that used measurements of exploding stars to show that the expansion of the universe was accelerating. The award was shared among all 51 scientists on the project. The same work earned Perlmutter, Schmidt and Riess the 2011 Nobel prize in physics.
Perlmutter told the Guardian that the most striking aspect of the Breakthrough Prizes was their emphasis on fundamental science. It was, he said, “a way of reminding our larger society how much it depends on deep, foundational research that never looks like it is practical at the time, but somehow over and over again has completely transformed our society, leapfrogging over the incremental, applied research, for which the need is more obvious.”
“Most of our time is spent on mundane matters. Tonight we thought about the molecules of life, the structure of prime numbers, the fate of the universe. It was an uplifting occasion for everyone,” said Milner.
While most Nobel prizes go to researchers nearing the end of their career, the Breakthrough prizes target younger scientists with much of their career before them. Scientists who have received the prizes have set up education programmes in Africa and funds for struggling junior scientists. The prizes have their critics, with some arguing that the vast sums of money – more than $100m so far, not counting fees for hosts and venues – would do more for science in the form of grants in the developing world or funds for new projects and institutions.
2015 Breakthrough prizewinners
Alim Louis Benabid, Joseph Fourier University, for the discovery and pioneering work on the development of high-frequency deep brain stimulation (DBS), which has revolutionized the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.
C David Allis, The Rockefeller University, for the discovery of covalent modifications of histone proteins and their critical roles in the regulation of gene expression and chromatin organization, advancing the understanding of diseases ranging from birth defects to cancer.
Victor Ambros, University of Massachusetts Medical School, and Gary Ruvkun, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, for the discovery of a new world of genetic regulation by microRNAs, a class of tiny RNA molecules that inhibit translation or destabilize complementary mRNA targets.
Jennifer Doudna, University of California, Berkeley, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, Helmholtz Center for Infection Research and Umeå University, for harnessing an ancient mechanism of bacterial immunity into a powerful and general technology for editing genomes, with wide-ranging implications across biology and medicine.
The 2015 Breakthrough Prizes in Mathematics The inaugural Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics honors five of the world’s best mathematicians who have contributed to major advances in the field.
Simon Donaldson, Stony Brook University and Imperial College London, for the new revolutionary invariants of 4-dimensional manifolds.
Maxim Kontsevich, Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques, for work making a deep impact in a vast variety of mathematical disciplines, including algebraic geometry, deformat.
Jacob Lurie, Harvard University, for his work on the foundations of higher category theory and derived algebraic geometry; for the classification of fully extended topological quantum field theories; and for providing a moduli-theoretic interpretation of elliptic cohomology.
Terence Tao, University of California, Los Angeles, for numerous breakthrough contributions to harmonic analysis, combinatorics, partial differential equations and analytic number theory.
Richard Taylor, Institute for Advanced Study, for numerous breakthrough results in the theory of automorphic forms, including the Taniyama-Weil conjecture, the local Langlands conjecture for general linear groups, and the Sato-Tate conjecture.