In a ceremony hosted by actor Kevin Spacey and featuring a live performance from singer Lana Del Ray, six biologists and two physicists took home a combined US$21 million last night at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. It was the latest tranche of science megaprizes sponsored by philanthropic billionaires.
Since internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner announced last year that he would dwarf the Nobels by giving out $3 million prizes to theoretical physicists, the ‘Breakthrough prizes’ (which now have branched out of fundamental physics and into the life sciences) have given out more than $90 million and gained additional sponsors, including the founders of Google, 23andMe and Facebook. And more prizes are on the way: at the end of the ceremony, Milner announced that next year there would be a new award for mathematics.
In theoretical physics, Michael Green, of the University of Cambridge, UK, and John Schwarz of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, shared $3 million for their work on quantum gravity and the unification of forces.
In life sciences, the winners — each of whom received $3 million — were James Allison of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, for work on cancer immunotherapy; Mahlon De Long of Emory University in Atlanta, for work on brain circuits that malfunction in Parkinson’s disease; Michael Hall of the University of Basel in Switzerland for discovering the protein kinase target of rapamycin (TOR); Robert Langer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge for work on biomaterials and controlled drug-release systems; Richard Lifton of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, for work on hypertension; and Alexander Varshavsky of Caltech for work on intracellular protein degradation.
Green told the Guardian that he was “delighted and flattered” to have won. So far, the reaction from some scientists has been ambivalent: delighted at the attention and recognition, but unsure whether big prizes are the best way to promote research. Some of last year’s physics awardees have used their winnings to support funds for postdocs, PhD students and science teachers.