Please Tell Me, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Very Best Scientist of Them All ??   (

Please Tell Me, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Very Best Scientist of Them All ?? (


There are a very large number of awards and honors given to research scientists every year!  Most are much smaller than the 2 highest awards for excellence in science, the Nobel Prize [1] and the Kavli Prize [2].  Many of the other honorific prizes are local or narrowly dedicated to a certain subject, activity, location, or aspect of science.  A few of these others have achieved a wonderful record of significance such that they commonly are labelled as being precursors for receiving a Nobel Prize; the Lasker Awards for clinical and basic research in medicine are a very good example of this [3].  Receipt of any award for excellence is a gratifying honor for all the hard work and many challenges to being an outstanding research scientist.

Recently, several large new prizes for outstanding scientists have been initiated, featuring gigantic cash awards.  These major new honors generally are attempts to modernize awards for science, to elevate the public’s low esteem for science, and to bypass some of the restrictions for the Nobel and Kavli Prizes.  Part I of this 2-part series reviews the origin and features of these new megaprizes.  Part II then will evaluate their effects upon science and scientists. 

New Award Programs for Outstanding Scientific Research

A very well-written article about the new science megaprizes was written by Zeeya Merali and published last year in Nature [4].  I highly recommend that you read this dramatically informative  report (see: ).  Some of the new programs with large awards include the: 

(1)    Breakthrough Fundamental Physics Prize (2012), awarded annually to several honorees, with a prize of 3 million dollars to each person [5-8];

(2)    Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (2013), issued annually to several awardees, with a prize of 3 million dollars to each one [5-8];

(3)    Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics (2013), awarded annually to several selections with a prize of 3 million dollars to each person [6-8];

(4)    Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science (2013), awarded every 2 years to several honorees, with a prize of up to 1.6 million dollars to each [9]; and,

(5)    Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (2013), aimed to be a Nobel Prize for engineering research and development, with a prize of 1.5 million dollars [5].

All these ‘new Nobels’ now have been actually awarded to very meritorious researchers [6-9] .  Yet other megaprizes undoubtedly will be added to this enlarging line-up.  In the following lists, numbers do not correspond to the same number in the list above.

What are the purposes of these additional awards?  The new Breakthrough Prizes  were established with funds generously donated by Yuri Milner and several other very successful leaders in  Silicon Valley and the internet world [5].  A variety of reasons have been given for the purposes of these new megaprize programs:

(1)   elevate  and encourage more public interest and appreciation for modern science;

(2)   encourage students to pursue a career in science or engineering;

(3)   attract more research funding for certain less prominent disciplines in science;

(4)   stimulate more development of science and research in certain regions of the world;

(5)   bring Nobel-level attention to other dimensions of research (e.g., engineering);

(6)   bring Nobel-level attention to new and novel areas in modern science;

(7)   give acclaim to outstanding younger researchers before they get old or die;

(8)   increase unrestricted research funds for support of outstanding scientists; and,

(9)   remedy problems and flaws in the Nobel Prize award programs.

What prompted individuals to fund the establishment of these mega-awards?  The story about how and why Yuri Milner, who resides in California and Moscow, established the Breakthrough Prizes is indeed fascinating [5].  Milner said that he “wanted to send a message that fundamental science is important”.  Several other prominent leaders in internet companies joined Milner to expand the Breakthrough Prize programs.  A host of possible motivations immediately are suggested for the extreme generosity of these cosponsors, including:

(1)     promotion of ego (e.g., ambition to become a mover and shaker in science);

(2)     self-interest (e.g., buying fame, power, and recognition);

(3)     politics and business interests;

(4)     acquiring publicity for a favorite cause; and,

(5)    inducing changes in the present direction of science and society.

Why are the new science awards so very large?  The cash rewards for the new science megaprizes all are greater than the one million dollar size of the rewards given by the Nobel or Kavli Prizes.  At the very least, this feature draws much more attention and publicity to the new award programs and new awardees.  Some donors to the Breakthrough Prizes have said that they want outstanding scientists to be recognized as corresponding to the ‘superheroes’ in comic books.  In most cases, the several million dollars in prize money awarded to each individual is unrestricted, and theoretically could be used for buying a new house, starting a small business, taking several round-the-world cruises, making large gifts, supplementing available research grants, investing to earn income, etc., etc.  Almost all modern scientists are not used to having such large amounts of personal money available, and are reported by Merali to be hesitant to decide what they will do with their new pile of big prize money [4] . 

How do the New Megaprizes Differ from The Nobel and Kavli Prizes? 

Several of the new award programs have been claimed in news accounts as being a greater honor than the Nobel or Kavli  Prizes, largely because they feature a bigger cash reward.  However, just because their prize money indeed is larger, it does not follow that the new awards are more prestigious honors.  It must be recognized that the size of awards for the Nobel and Kavli Prizes already are very large.  To receive even more money moves scientists into today’s realm of star athletes, heads of governments, and entertainment figures.  If that acts to normalize who and what modern society values, then the result could be good.  However, it seems more likely that giant awards will also have some very undesirable consequences; these negative effects will be examined later in Part II.   

The several good features of the new megaprize awards modify usual practices for the Nobel Prize by having: open nominations (also used by the Kavli Prize); selection by other scientists or by previous winners; much less secrecy in judging;  an increased number of awardees (e.g., an entire team, rather than just the one director); emphasis on unconventional subjects or special concerns ; and, inclusion of science areas not honored (yet) by the traditional Prizes (e.g., mathematics).  

The new Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science is given to outstanding scientists  in this one sub-branch of biological science  [9].  The other large prizes awarded by the Tang Foundation are for projects within Sustainable Development, but outside of science [9].  Headquartered in Taiwan, this megaprize program is notable because part of its large cash reward is given to the individual person being honored, and part is given specifically to support their further experimental research efforts. 

Conclusions for Part I

The new multimillion megaprizes for outstanding scientific research serve several useful purposes for science and society: the number of scientists being honored each year is increased, realms of science that are not used by traditional major award programs will be inaugurated and encouraged, and, the financial rewards for the honorees will be substantially elevated.  Subsidiary benefits include providing greater publicity and education  of the public for science and research, bringing recognition to entire teams of scientists working together, and, encouraging more good students to enter a career in science. 

Although the intents of these new award programs are very commendable, some of these also seem likely to result unexpectedly in negative outcomes.   The following Part II will discuss the unintended problematic features introduced by the new megaprizes. 

References Cited

[1]  Nobel Prizes, 2014.  Nobel Prize facts.  Available on the internet at: .

[2]  The Kavli Prize, 2014.  About the Kavli Prize.  Available on the internet at: .

[3]  Lasker Foundation, 2014.  The Lasker Awards overview.  Available on the internet at: .

[4]  Merali, Z., 2013.  Science prizes: The new Nobels.  Nature  498:152-154.  Available on the internet at: .

[5]  Sample, I., for The Guardian, 2012.  Biggest science prize takes web tycoon from social networks to string theory.  Available on the internet at:

[6]  Breakthrough Prize, 2014.  Recipients of the 2015 Breakthrough Prizes in Fundamental Physics and Life Sciences announced.  Available on the internet at: .  

[7]  Flam, F.D., for Forbes, 2014.  Winners announced for the world’s richest science award: The $3 million Breakthrough Prize.  Available on the internet at: .

[8]  BBC News, Science and Environment, 2014,  Breakthrough science prize: Big names add glitz to ceremony.  Available on the internet at:

[9]  Tang Prize Foundation, 2014.  Introduction, award categories, and 2014 Tang Prize in biopharmaceutical science.  Available on the internet at: .



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