Life Scientists Earn a Hefty Sum

As a handful of scientists became $3 million richer last week, some people are questioning whether or not the prize is appropriate.

The first eleven recipients of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences were announced on Feb. 20.  The award was established by millionaires, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, to “recognize excellence in research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life,” according to the foundation’s website.

Some of the Breakthrough Prize recipients were shocked by the amount of money entering their pockets.

“I almost fell over,” Lewis Cantley, who conducts cancer research at Weill Cornell Medical College, told the Guardian. Cornelia Bargmann, who investigates how genes and the environment interact to create behavior, said she “thought it must be a practical joke.”

The size of the prize has generated mixed feelings. Nobel Prize winners, by contrast, went home with only $1.2 million last year.

Eva Amsen wrote on a developmental biology blog that she would rather see smaller prizes given to more scientists instead of “only awarding the top talent.”

Others are saying the prize should recognize the collaborations, not individual scientists, that make breakthroughs possible.

Although the first eleven winners of the award were in fact individuals, the foundation’s website indicates that the prize can be shared among any number of researchers.

Another point of contention is that scientists are free to use the money however they say fit. Art Levinson, Apple’s chairman and a cofounder of the Breakthrough Prize, told NPR it is a “personal contribution to the person…they can go on a cruise or they can continue and expand their own research efforts, if they so choose.”

The foundation contends the purpose of the Breakthrough Prize is to recognize groundbreaking discoveries in the life sciences and encourage people to consider pursuing science as a career.

For a full list of winners and their biographies, see this news release.

For further commentary, see “New Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences is misguided”

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