Silicon Valley millionaires bring star power to basic research at “Oscars of Science”

Xiaowei Zhuang receives the 2019 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences on stage with actress Lupita Nyong’o and Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook and one of Breakthrough’s sponsors (source).

This week, on November 5, the 2019 recipients of the seventh annual Breakthrough Prize were announced. The awards, designed to celebrate “disciplines that ask the biggest questions and find the deepest explanations,” come with a hefty cash prize sponsored by a group of seven Silicon Valley tech moguls: $3 million to each of the 9 recipients, and an additional $600,000 to 6 early career scientists receiving “New Horizon” prizes. In total, $22 million was handed out to the winners at a lavish red carpet ceremony hosted by former James Bond star, Pierce Brosnan.

The Breakthrough Prize is one of a growing number of recent efforts from philanthropic organizations to champion the basic sciences. While the amount of money awarded to academic scientists from private foundations pales in comparison to the investments from federal government — $6.7 billion compared to $34.2 billion in 2016, respectively — their share has steadily increased over the last two decades (see figure below). Expenditures from nonprofit organizations now make up 13.5% of total U.S. expenditures, up from 11.8% in 2006 and 8.3% in 1996. This investment has helped to fill the gap from stagnating federal research budgets since the early 2000s, especially in basic research.

Basic research expenditures by sector over the forty years (source: NSF).

Additionally, philanthropic monies, such as the Breakthrough Prize, typically come with less strings attached for grantees. Similar to the Nobel Prize and MacArthur “Genius Grant,” the Breakthrough prizes can be spent in whatever fashion the awardees would like. And, nonprofits, unlike businesses, are free to award curiosity-driven grants and prizes without the expectation of short-term returns on their investments. For early-career scientists, awards such as the “New Horizon” prize can be a boon when the median age of grant recipients for some federal agencies reaches into the 40s, and continues to grow older.

The Breakthrough awards, colloquially known as the “Oscars of Science,” takes a progressive approach both to its selection process and awards ceremony. The Breakthrough Prize has an open nomination forum (2020 nominations open in April), and previous award winners are consulted in the selection process, mirroring scientific “peer-review.” And while the Nobel Prize has an unmatched prestige, Breakthrough tries to create an air of celebrity for its recipients, literally rolling out the red carpet and filling it with Hollywood stars. This year the list included Julianne Moore, Orlando Bloom, Lupita Nyong’o, and Ron Howard, with a musical performance by Lionel Richie.

Polls suggests that while most Americans hold scientists in high esteem, only 19% can name a living scientist. Breakthrough’s award ceremony aims to change this disparity by presenting scientists in the same light as celebrities, who have a can have a tremendous impact on people’s lives and positions on policy issues. The hope is that bringing more working scientists into the public eye will raise awareness of their contributions to our daily lives, as well as put them in a position to inform public opinions.

Read more about this year’s recipients and their scientific achievements here.

The @stpolicy blog is a product of Baker Institute’s Science and Technology Policy Program — specifically Dr. Kenneth Evans and Dr. Kirstin Matthews. Find more research and publications at www.science.bakerinstitute.org.