New Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences is misguided | @GrrlScientist

Opinion-editorial response to the first Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, my comments are just as sadly relevant today as they were in 2013.

In short: We should celebrate the scientific breakthroughs that benefit the many, not the few

by GrrlScientist for The Guardian | @GrrlScientist

The Breakthrough Prize trophy was created by Olafur Eliasson. “The whole idea for me started out with, ‘Where do these great ideas come from? What type of intuition started the trajectory that eventually becomes what we celebrate today?’” Like much of Eliasson’s work, the sculpture explores the common ground between art and science. It is moulded into the shape of a toroid, recalling natural forms found from black holes and galaxies to seashells and coils of DNA.

Like a lot of people, I awoke this morning to news of the new Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. Initiated by multibillionaires Art Levinson, Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg, Priscilla Chan and Yuri Milner, the Breakthrough Prize is intended to recognise “excellence in research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life.” Winners are awarded $3 million each and since this is a prize, they can spend this money in any way they wish. According to the website, this prize is “dedicated to advancing breakthrough research, celebrating scientists and generating excitement about the pursuit of science as a career.”

Wonderful — anything to give science a positive and prominent public profile. But unfortunately, this prize is flawed and seriously misguided and thus, I don’t think it will accomplish its stated goals.

Scientific breakthroughs result from decades of collaborative and cumulative efforts

First and foremost, the Breakthrough Prize draws attention to the public’s fundamental misunderstanding of how scientific research is actually done. Science, perhaps more than any other intellectual pursuit, actively builds on the research and technical innovations — and the ideas — of others. Breakthroughs in scientific understanding are not made by individuals. Nearly all “breakthroughs” are the result of scientific collaborations and research teams where each individual brings his or her specific expertise, experience and passion to focus on a particular aspect of a narrowly-defined challenge or problem. To single out individual scientists for special recognition is to overlook or ignore the dozens or even hundreds of talented individuals who also contributed to that breakthrough. The fact is that large collaborations are the way things are typically done in the areas of science that this prize is aimed at.

“Life sciences” is a huge field encompassing all biological sciences

Although the name is “the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences”, all of the recipients work in biomedical research. So the vast majority of life sciences — such as biology, climate science, ecology, ethology, microbiology, marine biology, zoology, botany, and taxonomy (just to name a few) — are ignored and rendered invisible. Despite their invisibility, all of these fields are critically important to understanding the world around us — and all of them are grossly underfunded, especially when compared to human medical research: for example, in 2010 the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is the primary funder of human medical research in the USA, received US$31bn, whereas the National Science Foundation (NSF), which covers almost all other fields of scientific research, including physics and chemistry — got less than US$7bn that same year.

Only research into “diseases of the affluent” are rewarded

This prize is even more conventional than you might think; this year’s award winners’ research primarily focuses on cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Although these diseases do take a terrible toll, they disproportionately affect people in Western countries, so the prize is aimed at people like Tom Lehrer’s Dr. Samuel Gall, who specialises in the diseases of the affluent. In contrast, people who live in developing nations are still dying in staggering numbers from preventable diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, measles, a variety of respiratory ailments, and HIV/AIDS. With the exception of HIV/AIDS, research into all of these diseases is severely underfunded.

Why most “life scientists” are not excited by the Breakthrough Prize

This prize is deeply flawed for another reason. According to Breakthrough Prize co-creator, Russian tech investor Yuri Milner, one of the top priorities of the Breakthrough Prize is to “motivat[e] young scientists to stay in science, and not necessarily switch to areas that are better monetized”.

The prize is vaguely insulting because it suggests that scientists — who have dedicated decades of their lives to getting the prerequisite education and training to pursue their careers — lack motivation and commitment to stay in science unless rewarded with huge sums of money and fame (fleeting though it is). Additionally, one lucrative “jackpot” of a prize cannot and will not change reality. The sad reality of a life in science is that there are thousands more scientists entering the job market each year than there are available jobs in science. Those few who are lucky to get a stable, paying research or academic position often toil for long hours as poorly-paid postdoctoral fellows for 5 or 6 years (or longer) before being hired to permanent positions. A disturbing number are stuck as postdocs for their entire working lives. Others end up chronically underemployed outside their fields of expertise or unemployed altogether.

The postdoc years also coincide with the biological reality that this is when most people start their own families and, at the same time, their ageing parents most need their help: poor pay, poor or nonexistent health care access, poor social support and frequent long-distance relocations significantly add to the pressures of remaining in science. Amongst those who somehow manage to persist in the life sciences, biomedical researchers enjoy much better employment prospects than do scientists in other biological disciplines.

So young “life scientists” who are not in biomedical research are the people who most need to feel excited and hopeful. But when prizes like these are awarded, these overlooked researchers will get nothing except possibly a few free glasses of wine, if they are even invited to a big party hosted by one of the Breakthrough Prize winners. In short, most “life scientists” are simply too far away from this award for it to have its intended effect: these funds go to a tiny number of respected and well-established biomedical researchers who have already accumulated an impressive warchest of awards and prizes. Don’t believe me? Look at the lists detailing each winner’s prizes and awards. Basically, this year’s recipients are very well-funded when compared to recent science doctorates and current postdocs — and even when compared to well-established scientists in other non-biomedical life science disciplines.

How to make scientists into “rock stars” and “superheroes”

Outside of giving scientists colourful capes and tights, a more effective way to achieve the aims of supporting science and motivating its practitioners to stay in research or academic careers would be to award the prize money in smaller packages to more people. Additionally, instead of directing the majority of life science funds to individual scientific silverbacks in biomedical research, these monies should be invested into research teams who work together to address specific life sciences issues that face humanity today. These issues range from overpopulation and its attendant problems (particularly poverty, the lack of housing, clean water, adequate food and health care) to the disastrous effects of human-caused global climate change and its devastating effects on biodiversity and ecosystems — and people. These are all critically important problems that have far greater long-term consequences, yet receive far less research funding, than does research into so-called “Western” diseases. For this reason, a comparatively small investment of money into these other disciplines could make a Really Big Impact (to their credit, this is something that Bill and Melinda Gates appear to understand).

In my opinion, prizes such as this should invest in making this planet a better, more habitable and joyful place for everyone, not just for a few rich Westerners who may be cured of their formerly incurable cancers. As Mr. Spock will observe in the future: “logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. Prizes and the large sums of money associated with them can do a lot of good, and may even help make it possible for some scientists to continue their research careers, but this will only happen if the prizes are thoughtfully targeted so that many scientists — and the whole world — benefit.

Sources:

Breakthrough Prize in Life Science (press release)

The Top Deadly Diseases of the Developing World

Many thanks to my twitter followers who agreed with my points and encouraged me to expand upon and share them here. Special thanks to Bob O’Hara, who patiently listened and finally told me: “blog it!”


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Originally published at The Guardian on 21 February 2013.