Nature on the new Nobels

This week’s Nature has an article by Zeeya Merali about various new science mega-prizes, including Yuri Milner’s Fundamental Physics Prize. There’s also a podcast here, and a Nature editorial here.

I’m quoted in the article, saying about what you’d expect, but in general I was surprised by the extent of the negative reaction to these prizes that she found. Even $3 million winner Sasha Polyakov has concerns, saying

This new prize is an interesting experiment… Such big prizes could become very influential and they can have a positive impact, or they can be very dangerous.

Frank Wilczek has this to say:

I don’t want to run these awards down, but I find it offensive that people are trying to either borrow the prestige of the Nobel, or buy it…

Prizes are a good thing, but the question is, if your goal is to help science, are large prizes the most efficient way to do that?

Interestingly, Milner counters the criticism that his prizes have heavily gone to string theorists by noting that the award to seven LHC experimentalists this year will shift the balance on the judging panel towards experiment (since awards in the future will be chosen by past winners).

On the whole Merali doesn’t seem to have had much luck in getting the winners to reveal what they plan to do with the money. Some of the LHC winners seem to be very aware that they’ve been given a large check due to the work of others, with Tejinder Virdee of CMS planning to support science in schools in sub-Saharan Africa. I’ve heard rumors that Maxim Kontsevich is somehow using his award to help others at the IHES, but nothing else about how other theorists will use the money. They are giving public lectures, which are online, see here. After Witten’s lecture at Hunter College, the first question was about his plans for the money, but no answer was forthcoming.

The editorial chides scientists for criticizing these new prizes, saying they should “accept such gifts with gratitude and grace”. I suppose there would be a lot more of that if the prizes seemed to be helping to support science in general, not just the bank accounts of a few.

Update: At least one wealthy philanthropist has decided to give the millions for theoretical physics to an institution rather than a person. The University of Chicago has announced a $3.5 million gift from an anonymous donor, which will support a new Center for Theoretical Physics to be named after Leo Kadanoff.

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14 Responses to Nature on the new Nobels

  1. CIP says:

    I think that it was Leo Szilard, in the Voice of the Dolphins, who had the protagonist in one of his stories planning to use his vast wealth to retard scientific progress by giving a number of large prizes to scientists. The idea was to get the scientists so busy competing for the awards that they wouldn’t have any time to think fundamental thoughts.

  2. David Appell says:

    The dilemma seems to me to be that a lot of small prizes, explicitedly for things like sub-Saharan science education, or conference travel subsidies for graduate students, or whatever, do not have the glamour and do not get the attention given to a few big, M$+ prizes, either for science, or (certainly) for whomever is giving out the prizes. That is unfortunate nature of our world. But I think this does put a lot of responsibility on prize recipients to arrange for and distribute the attention and influence given these prizes.

  3. chris says:

    our society in general starves the masses to shower the top people with money. why should science be an exception?

  4. Hamish Johnston says:

    I agree with Chris, these prizes are another example of the “winner takes all” attitude that was born in the financial sector and now seems to be creeping into the rest of society. I was recently in Waterloo, Ontario where I saw a much more positive example of what one rich person’s generosity could do. BlackBerry founder Mike Lazaridis has played an important role in transforming Waterloo from a sleepy university town to a physics powerhouse by establishing the Perimeter Institute and playing leading roles in setting up the Institute for Quantum Computing and a venture capital firm for quantum information technologies. I’d much rather see that sort of investment…but I suppose it’s their money.

  5. Chris Oakley says:

    There is, of course, a way that those with money to burn, and who want to help fundamental research in science and medicine could make a difference: instead of giving $3m to a handful of burned-out old has-beens, they could give out $30,000 prizes to 100 promising young researchers, much in the spirit of the Gates scholarships to Cambridge, UK, but at post-doctoral level. This also would acknowledge the principle – sadly overlooked by quantum field theorists – that the independent pursuit of different ideas is more likely to get a result than the singleminded focus on one unpromising one.

  6. Ted says:

    To answer Frank Wilczek’s question, prizes like this are nearly useless in promoting scientific progress. Prizes could be useful if they are awarded for solving specific problems, but the most interesting problems are usually so important that the prestige in solving them is enough to incentivize the profession. For example, did we really need the Clay prizes to get people to work on Riemann’s Hypothesis? Further, awarding prizes for past work doesn’t incentivize anything. The incentives for producing important work is already so tremendous that the incentives from monetary prizes can only be marginal. Professional prestige is the biggest motivator.

    Something like the Milner prize could be useful if given to people with enormous previous success who have experimental ideas and are unable to get funding. Except, this doesn’t describe any of these guys – except the LHC team and $3 million is not so different than $0 when it comes to high energy experiments. The only possible use is that these guys can use the $3 million to take a break from teaching, but I doubt what is holding these guys back is a burdensome teaching schedule.

    But I don’t think these prizes are harmful, I just wish that if Mr. Milner wants to throw away his money, he would gives it to something useful – like a charity.

  7. Bill says:

    I would go a bit further and suggest that all awards and prizes, including Nobel prize and Fields medal, are counterproductive. They upset natural development and natural balance among various areas of research judged purely on their merits by glamorizing some specific accomplishments. This becomes a self-reinforced process since people deciding future awards are often selected among past winners. Some areas become “sexy” while other are perceived as not. This plays a big role in the flow of young talent, for example. Of course, you may say that in the absence of all awards the natural “merits” are rather subjective and political skills will determine the balance of power, but I think this is already factored into reality anyway. I personally would like to see all awards (big and small) disappear and let everyone be judged by the impact of their work.

  8. P says:

    Ted,

    Two quick comments:

    1) most of the recipients of these prizes aren’t teaching that much anyways.

    2) your HEP experiment comment is collider biased: dark matter experiments and others that fall under the HEP category according to funding institutions are often on the order of 1-10M. There is continually more push for these experiments at the “intensity” and “cosmic” frontier, and not just the “high energy” frontier, according to the Snowmass distinction. Milner could make a significant dent with his $3M in this regard.

    Cheers,
    P

  9. Tmark48 says:

    Physics prizes should by their very nature be awarded to scientists that have done great scientific accomplishment in physics and I underline physics not pseudo-science, not speculative ideas that have no experimental confirmation.What was good for Einstein should be good also for your physics candidate of the 21st century.

    These multimillion dollar prizes are a symptom of “look over there, these experimentalists are getting all the recognition, they are getting all those Nobel prizes (insert curse words for poor Alfred Nobel who wasn’t into pseudo-speculative science) we poor theoretical physicists are not recognised for our work. Boooo boooo boooooooo we want a prize. We need a prize.” Please, scientific revolutions are not a dime a dozen. So there comes a time when theoretical physicists will be awarded for their theories if they find EXPERIMENTAL confirmation. Otherwise they are just ideas, wrong ideas, nice ideas, leading maybe to new maths but it is not physics.

  10. Pepe says:

    A simple remark. Juan Maldacena donated 200.000 USD to his former institution in Argentina, Instituto Balseiro. This happened some months after receiving the Milner prize, here the info (just in spanish after google it ;) ): http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1538630-juan-maldacena-dono-us-200000-al-balseiro

  11. Interesting entry! I have always believed, that prizes main values are beyond money:

    1) Prestige and influence.
    2) Contacts and creation of research groups.

    So, really, a prize giving lot of money could not be as good as a low money prize but with “other kind of reward”. For instance, I have never seen that, e.g., a very brillian paper or contribution of some unknown person can help him to be selected for certain programme or group. There are “good scientists” that can be “lost” due to “big prize”, and equivalently, there are potentially good scientists getting lost for Science due to a lack of (not such a big) cash support.

  12. fuzzy says:

    nobel wanted to apologize for the nitroglycerin, but i wonder what is the psychological motivation of this prize. maybe milner feels that he should have continued studying vague and speculative ideas? gosh, no my friend, please go over! the best physicists can be wrong and you have the right to try your best in the way you like more.

    anyhow, in my view chris is right, and i would add the following. the definition of “top people” used in the milner prize is not at all clear, it seems to mix nostalgia and lust for recognizing, rather than caring of true scientific achievements. anyhow, this is a young prize, and we can hope that its target will be improved in the course of the time.

  13. srp says:

    Prizes like the Nobel, where no specific accomplishment is pre-specified, have in principle less power to change the direction of research for good or ill. That means the harm they can do is limited. “Do something that will impress us and we’ll give you some money and prestige” is a general encouragement to do impressive things, which seems like an OK thing, and it also calls attention to the work itself and the general character of impressive work which may attract new achievers into areas where they think they can do something impressive.

    One problem occurs when people start sussing out in advance what past achievements are going to be rewarded and jockey for credit instead of doing new things. Another is when some anticipated achievement is seen as a shoo-in winner of a future prize and “too many” people crowd into its pursuit. A third is when collective achievements are arbitrarily assigned to a small number of individuals. Milner doesn’t seem any worse than Nobel on these criteria.

  14. annamaria says:

    The problem with giving money to Universities is that, unless the money is very well targeted, over half will disappear into paying for the ever burgeoning administrative structures we all suffer from. Much better to pool it in some way and set up a lean research institute(s) focused on providing space and time to think, Perimeter Institute style, and releasing academics from the bureaucracy they are increasingly having to cope with. In many universities, research is something you do in your spare time.