Research Intelligence - The glittering prizes cast their gleam

Awards can raise profile and state funding for academic disciplines. Elizabeth Gibney reports

August 16, 2012

Credit: Getty
New frontiers: challenges set by the X Prize Foundation and awards offered by Yuri Milner (main picture) can generate R&D funding larger than the value of the prizes

Earlier this month, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner shocked the science world when he announced a plan to give nine scientists prizes of $3 million (£1.9 million) each for their work in areas of as yet unproven fundamental physics.

Through his foundation, Mr Milner, a former physicist himself, said he hoped that the annual prize would provide recipients with more freedom to pursue even greater accomplishments.

But as with many monetary prizes available in research - often awarded for work done long in the past and usually to those already at the top of their fields - it is unclear whether they will have the desired effect.

One winner of Mr Milner's prize, Maxim Kontsevich, a mathematician at the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies in France, told Times Higher Education that it was unlikely that the awards would give their recipients more freedom: after all, they already had "almost perfect conditions" for research.

In fact, he argued, the winners would have less freedom because they will become "very public figures" who must dedicate a lot of their time to public engagement.

"It's kind of a dangerous road - it can eat up all your time," he added.

In general, prizes are rarely an incentive for researchers, Professor Kontsevich said. "People do research in physics mostly because it's a wonderful subject. Some people may be really stimulated by the pursuit of prizes, but not me or many others."

Undoubtedly, however, the cash value of Mr Milner's awards will raise the profile of researchers working in what are usually seen as obscure fields, and may help to generate additional public funding.

The world's most prestigious academic prize, the Nobel, certainly has such power. A famous recent example is the £50 million of UK government funding awarded to a national institute for graphene research in the wake of University of Manchester scientists Sir Andre Geim and Sir Konstantin Novoselov winning the physics accolade in 2010 for their work on the "wonder material".

Raising awareness of a field or a group of researchers is a common aim for prizes. The £1 million Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, for example, to be awarded for the first time next spring, aims to raise the global public profile of the discipline and to inspire new engineers.

Meanwhile, the $100,000 L'Oréal-Unesco Awards For Women in Science, first awarded in 1998, aim to "provide visibility and encouragement" for female practitioners.

"Because of the L'Oréal publicity machine, there's this very pervasive message that women can do science. That is hugely beneficial for the community," said Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, winner of the prize in 2009 and now a judge.

"The prize is sizeable and I'm sure some people put it towards research; others maybe towards a yacht. But they also get publicity because of it and...that's been more life-changing."

Other prizes that might be more prestigious but have smaller or no sums attached - such as those awarded by the Royal Society - do not make the same kind of waves, she added.

Other awards have different formats and specific goals, although still work by generating awareness.

The US branch of campaign group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for example, has established a $1 million prize for the first laboratory to create commercially viable in vitro chicken.

Ingrid Newkirk, Peta's founder, said that before the prize was announced in 2008, the public had little idea that lab-grown meat was a possibility, and the scientists involved had been toiling away in obscurity for 15 years.

"[The first idea] was to put it into the public consciousness, second to get the press talking about it to reach the maximum number of people, and the third big goal was to give confidence to scientists who we had been talking to for a long time...that the world would be behind them," she said.

Although the prize has yet to be awarded, since its inception funding for the field has soared. Mark Post, head of physiology at Maastricht University, is aiming to create an in vitro hamburger, which is scheduled for a taste test in October.

Awarding challenge-led prizes retrospectively can be better than awarding the same amount of money in research funding because in new fields it is rarely clear who should receive investment, Ms Newkirk added.

"The [lab-grown meat] field is getting clearer, but when we announced the prize, we just wouldn't have known who to give it to," she said.

X Prize: the funding is out there

The model of challenge-led research prizes has taken off in recent years, particularly in the US through the X Prize Foundation, started by entrepreneur Peter Diamandis in 1996.

The first award (named the Ansari X Prize after the entrepreneurs who agreed to fund it to the tune of $10 million) challenged teams to build and fly a passenger vehicle 100km into space twice within two weeks. Some 26 teams from across the world responded, collectively investing more than $100 million. Mojave Aerospace Ventures eventually won with its craft SpaceShipOne in 2004.

Now competitions include the Google Lunar X Prize to put a robot on the Moon; the Archon Genomics X Prize challenging teams to sequence 100 genomes within 30 days for less than $1,000 per genome sequence; and the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize to create a portable medical diagnostic device, named after the hand-held machine featured in Star Trek.

Each award is worth $10 million.

Alan Zack, senior director of marketing and communications at the X Prize Foundation, said that the awards' success was down to their ability to generate much greater research and development funding than the value of the prizes themselves, and from many sources.

According to Steve Bennett, chief executive officer of Starchaser Industries (a UK team that took part in the Ansari X Prize), although at times the prize diverted work away from other priorities, it was a game-changer in the space industry.

Nasa's decision to contract private companies to fly astronauts to the International Space Station was a direct consequence of the prize, said Dr Bennett, whose company is now close to achieving its goal of taking tourists into orbit.

The need to quickly generate what is often private funding to carry out the work means that so far universities have been less involved with the prizes, but Mr Zack said that was changing - as was the nature of the challenges. The X Prize Foundation is now considering more seemingly low-tech issues, such as the best methods for building cooking stoves for the developing world that cut the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

"In whatever field, these prizes centre around where the market is currently stuck, where there is a need for innovation. It's about how you take current innovation and turbocharge it," he said.

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