Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Let's not turn scientists into rock stars (the reverse is OK if they're called Brian)

Well, I thought I should put up here for posterity my comment published in the Guardian online about the Breakthrough Prizes. I realise that one thing I wanted to say in the piece but didn’t have room for is that it hardly seems an apt way to combat the low profile of scientists in our celebrity culture to try to turn them into celebrities too, with all the lucre that entails.

I know I tend to gripe about the feedback on Comment is Free, but I was pleasantly surprised at the thoughtful and apposite nature of many of the comments this time. But there’s always one – this time, the guy who didn’t read beyond the first line because it showed such appalling ignorance. The problem with not reading past the first line is that you can never be sure that the second line isn’t going to say “At least, that’s what we’re told, but the reality is different…”

I have been implored to put out a shout also for the Copley Medal, for which mathematicians are eligible. It is indeed very prestigious, and is apparently the oldest extant science prize. It is also delightfully modest in its financial component.


The wonderful thing about science is that it’s what gets discovered that matters, not who did the discovering. As Einstein put it, “When a man after long years of searching chances on a thought which discloses something of the beauty of this mysterious universe, he should not therefore be personally celebrated. He is already sufficiently paid by his experience of seeking and finding.” At least, that’s the official line – until it comes to handing out the prizes. Then, who did what gets picked over in forensic detail, not least by some of those in the running for the award or who feel they have been overlooked in the final decision.

This is nothing to be particularly ashamed of or dismayed about. Scientists are only human, and why shouldn’t they get some reward for their efforts? But the disparity between principle and practice is raised afresh with the inaugural awarding of the Breakthrough Prizes to five mathematicians on Monday. Each of them receives $3m – more than twice the value of a Nobel Prize. With stakes like that, it’s worth asking whether prizes help or hinder science.

The Breakthrough Prizes, established by information-technology entrepreneurs Yuri Milner and Mark Zuckerberg (of Facebook fame), are to be given for work in mathematics, fundamental physics and life sciences. The maths prize is the first to be decided, and the selection of five recipients of the full $3m each is unusual: from 2015, there will be only a single prize of this amount in each category, divided among several winners if necessary.

The creators of the prizes say they want to raise the esteem for science in society. “We think scientists should be much better appreciated”, Milner has said. “They should be modern celebrities, alongside athletes and entertainers. We want young people to get more excited. Maybe they will think of choosing a scientific path as opposed to other endeavours if we collectively celebrate them more."

He has a point – many people could reel off scores of Hollywood and sports stars, but would struggle to name any living physicist besides Stephen Hawking. But the idea that huge cash prizes might attract young people to science seems odd – can there be a single mathematician, in particular, who has chosen their career in the hope that they will get rich and famous? (And if there is, didn’t they study probability theory?)

Yet the curious thing is that maths is hardly starved of prizes already. The four-yearly Fields Medal (about $13,800) and the annual Abel Prize (about $1m) are both commonly described as the “maths Nobels”. In 2000 the privately funded Clay Mathematics Institute announced the Millennium Prizes, which offered $1m to anyone who could solve one of seven problems deemed to be among the most difficult in the subject.

Even researchers have mixed feelings. When Grigori Perelman solved one of the Millennium Problems, the PoincarĂ© conjecture, in 2003, he refused the prize, apparently because he felt it should have recognized the work of another colleague too. Perelman fits the stereotype of the unworldly mathematician who rejects fame and fortune, but he’s not alone in feeling uneasy about the growth of an immensely lucrative “cash prize culture” in maths and science.

One of the concerns is that prizes distort the picture of how science is done, suggesting that it relies on sudden, lone breakthroughs by Great Women and (more usually) Men. Science today is often conducted by vast teams, exemplified by the international effort to find the Higgs boson at CERN, and even though the number of co-laureates for Nobel prizes has been steadily increasing, its arbitrary limit of three no longer accommodates this.

Although the maths Breakthrough prizewinners include some relatively young researchers, and the Fields Medal rewards those under 40, many prizes are seen as something you collect at the end of a career – by which time top researchers are showered with other awards already. Like literary awards, they can become the focus of unhealthy obsession. I have met several great scientists whose thirst for a Nobel is palpable, along with others whose paranoia and jealousies are not assuaged by winning one. Most troublingly, a Nobel in particular can transform a good scientist into an alleged font of all wisdom, giving some individuals platforms from which to pontificate on subjects they are ill equipped to address, from the origin of AIDS to religion and mysticism. The truth is, of course, that winners of big prizes are simply a representative cross-section: some are delightfully humble, modest and wise, others have been arrogant bullies, nutty, or Nazi.

And prizes aren’t won for good work, but for good work that fits the brief – or perhaps the fashion. Geologists will never get a Nobel, and it seems chemists and engineers will never get a Breakthrough prize.

Yet for all their faults, it’s right that scientists win prizes. We should celebrate achievement in this area just as in any other. But I do wonder why any prize needs to be worth $3m – it’s not surprising that the Breakthrough Prizes have been accused of trying to outbid the Nobels. Even some Nobellists will admit that a few thousands are always welcome but a million is a burden. A little more proportion, please.


JimmyGiro said...

The power of the pimp.

A lot of the donors are billionaires, hence they have a vested interest in the technological and political future. It makes sense for them to control that future, by targeted inducements.

Presumably they not only control the choice of what fields and projects are to be awarded, but ultimately they select 'their' chosen winners.

Unknown said...

I TRY TO UNDERSTAND. Why ? WILL you USE THIS word to homunculus for your story. please enlighten me thanks