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.