Science’s innovators are to be prized

By Guest Contributor
October 9, 2013

–Juha Ylä-Jääski (D.Tech.) is President and CEO of Technology Academy Finland. The opinions expressed are his own.–

The 2013 Nobel season is once again gorging on a Grand Cru vintage of scientific achievement. Today, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to three scientists, Levitt, Karplus and Warshel, whose multinational collaboration laid the foundation for the computer models crucial for most advances in chemistry today. Yesterday, Peter Higgs and Francois Englert won the Nobel Prize for physics for conceiving the so-called “God particle” which explains why the Universe has mass. Another trio were recognised on Monday when the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to Rothman, Schekman and Südhof for solving the mystery of how the cell transports crucial cargo.

The Nobel Prize once stood alone commanding the attention of the world’s media.  Though it remains pre-eminent, as shown by the media hordes that have descended on Oslo, the trophy cabinet of international prizes has been stuffed full in recent years. There is the brand new Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering in the UK, the AM Turing Award, the Abel Prize, the Asahi and the Kyoto prize. The Russian billionaire Yuri Milner recently endowed the Fundamental Physics Prize by offering $3 million to each winner – three times the prize money given out by the Nobel Foundation. Perhaps most star-studded of all is the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences  – a joint enterprise by tech superstars including Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google and Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook.

But with this glut of prizes has also come a backlash.  A common criticism is that the same already successful few candidates tend to attract most of the prizes. Often, it is said, they reward scientists who are already renowned and successful rather than the unknown pioneer labouring in obscurity.   A fairer criticism is perhaps that they reward innovation that rightfully should be seen as a result of collective efforts rather than individual genius.  Last year, an editorial in Scientific American argued that the Nobel awards process has to recognise that major scientific progress is now brought about by teamwork rather than the two or three figures that win prizes.

As the CEO of Technology Academy Finland, which awards one of Europe’s largest science prizes, the Millennium Technology Prize, I’m aware that these criticisms need to be answered.  Those of us involved in awarding prizes must acknowledge that awarding prizes is necessarily subjective; they are not a matter of mathematical precision.  Choosing a winner from a wide range of disciplines is as imprecise as the choice of any book or painting to win an arts prize. One can never be entirely comparing like with like, unless the field examined is extremely narrow.  How do we equate the work of programmers, whose work will make untold improvements in our day-to-day lives with the medical, life enhancing possibilities of stem-cell research?

Another valid response to prizes is to ask whether they’re trying to do the impossible in predicting the future. For instance, last year the Millennium Technology Prize was jointly awarded to Shinya Yamanaka, the stem-cell pioneer. It has been anticipated that many life-threatening diseases will ultimately be conquered through this invention of induced pluripotent stem cells.  The prize committee thought there was a good chance that his work will have a huge impact in the future. Experts looked in-depth into his technological achievements and made an informed judgement. But we can’t yet know with certainty what use humanity will put these technologies and whether their promises will be realised – no one can.

The only answer to this scepticism is to have a robust judging process involving a panel of scientists who carry out through research into the work of candidates. Though there will always be disagreement, a prize will then gain credibility among the scientific community over time if it’s seen to weigh the claims of each nominee seriously by making its own enquiries.  Scientists will treat a prize whose winners are chosen for PR-reasons with scepticism.  But if a prize develops a track record of picking winners who go on to be widely celebrated, then it will be seen as performing a useful function.

But these concerns are to overlook the hugely important role that science prizes play in promoting science and engineering in our society. Scientists are not often celebrated as cultural figures – normally that distinction goes to musicians, actors, sports stars, and even highly paid entrepreneurs.  Those responsible for stem-cell research, new forms of solar energy, or new ways in which the body can absorb drugs – as the Millennium Technology Prize winners have been – are not often given the public recognition that they deserve.  Many scientists see such recognition as more of a burden than a gift, so far more important is that prizes give an opportunity for public attention to focus on the technologies themselves, helping increase literacy about science.  It’s an unavoidable fact that humanising these scientific leaps through telling the story of their discovery helps reach people who would never otherwise read about science. The human drama of a prize can bring the science alive.

Prizes are of course nowhere near as important as world class, well-funded universities and research facilities in promoting innovation.  But they do have an important role in focusing the attention of investors, corporations, educators and politicians on the cutting edge of science.  In 2010, the Millennium Technology Prize was awarded to the Swiss inventor Professor Michael Grätzel for his work on dye-sensitised solar cells. Following the award, the investment community finally started to believe in the potential for growth of this technology, and Professor Grätzel could therefore raise funds to develop a more economical coating that helped commercialise his invention.

Prizes also start much needed debates within countries about the state of science, and provide a way for countries to benchmark themselves against their competitors. If, for instance, a country goes decades without winning a Nobel Prize, it is a healthy source of concern, and poses questions that government and the scientific community must answer.  Equally, when a scientist from a country wins a prize, it gives the whole of science – from the school laboratory upwards – a powerful boost.  Science prizes deserve to be questioned. But if they reward those who’ve devoted their lives to science – and they inspire the next generation– then they’re more than worth all the gala dinners, dry ice and long speeches.

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