Scientists offer their thoughts on the Descartes Prize

July 15, 2004

Brussels, 14 Jul 2004

As the fifth anniversary of the Descartes Prize approaches, the Commission is keen to raise the profile of its most prestigious award for collaborative research and place it on a more equal footing with the world's best known scientific honour, the Nobel Prize.

This question of how this can be achieved was the subject of much discussion among the guests of a gala evening in Brussels on 12 July, held to celebrate the first five years of the prize. CORDIS News spoke to former winners, current finalists and members of the Grand Jury to get their thoughts on the current status of the prize, and how they would like to see that status enhanced.

As a first step towards deciding on a course of action, the Commission asked the European research advisory board (EURAB) to draw up a set of recommendations on how to increase the profile and impact of the prize. CORDIS News spoke to the chair of EURAB, Professor Helga Nowotny, and asked her to sum up the board's conclusions.

'First, we felt that the Oscar style award ceremony was not right for a scientific prize, and any ceremony that does take place should feature considered speeches from the winners, rather than just short acceptance speeches. We have also proposed a different selection process, no longer relying solely on self-nomination, but also featuring nominations by university heads, research centres and scientific academies,' revealed Professor Nowotny.

EURAB also recommended that in order to make the award ceremony more prestigious, the Head of State of the country hosting the event should be present, as well as the Commissioner for Research. An event held to discuss important and topical policy issues, involving political figures and Laureates, would also help to raise the profile of the prize, EURAB believes. Professor Nowotny added that: 'If we want to make the prize more prestigious, first and foremost, we must continue to set the right example and choose the best winners.'

However, one member of a team that picked up the award in 2001, Professor Michael North from King's College London, UK, believes that such recommendations are at best premature, and at worst, could damage the standing of the prize. 'I don't think that the Commission is doing much wrong with Descartes, I think they just need to keep doing it for a while and allow the prize to mature,' he told CORDIS News.

'The Commission wants the Descartes Prize to compete with the Nobel Prize, which has been around for over 100 years, and 5 years just isn't long enough for that to be a reality - give it another 20 years. If changes are made to the prize every five years, people will be confused and the award will never become established,' he added.

Professor North believes that the Descartes Prize is already becoming better known, particularly to a certain type of researcher: 'Whilst I suspect that most individualistic scientists will never have heard of the prize, collaborative researchers will most probably know about it, and have a high opinion of it,' he argued.

Professor Edward van den Heuvel, from the Anton Pannekoek astrophysical institute in the Netherlands, knows more than most about the prize and its significance. After being part of a winning team in 2002, Professor van den Heuvel has since become a member of the Descartes Prize Grand Jury. He believes that word of the prize is already beginning to spread: 'Many more people know about it now - universities publicise it, media coverage is getting much better, and Brussels is spreading the information much more around Europe.'

The Commission has decided that at this year's awards ceremony, a separate prize for science communication will also be given, and it had been suggested that it too would carry the name Descartes. On this point, Professor van den Heuvel agrees with the recommendation of EURAB. 'To create a second Descartes Prize - for science communication - could prove quite confusing, and I would be inclined to give it a different name,' he said.

The only scenario in which he would support having more than one Descartes Prize would be the creation of awards in various categories, such as physics, biology and engineering, much like the Nobel Prizes themselves. 'The Commission is very rich, so why not have a prize in each category - it would certainly be one way of giving it more prestige,' he said.

Having heard the views of those intimately acquainted with the prize, CORDIS News then sought the opinion of someone who is hoping to become a little more familiar with the award in the near future. Professor Peter Weinberger and his colleagues in Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary were recently selected as finalists for the 2004 prize, and he revealed what winning would mean to them.

'During our 15 years of collaboration, we have had 75 papers published - almost the equivalent of a small Max Planck institute, so it would be a welcome recognition of our achievements,' said Professor Weinberger. However, he doesn't feel that the Descartes Prize is yet on a par with the Nobel Prizes: 'If you're a Nobel Prize winner in the US, say, you become a hero overnight - Descartes doesn't have that impact yet, and the prize needs much more attention from science journalists before it will.'

Ultimately though, discussions on how to raise the impact of the award will become meaningless to Professor Weinberger if he and his colleagues take a share of the 1 million euro prize at the ceremony in Prague Castle this December. 'On a very earthly level, you must understand that Czech and Hungarian science are still very under supported, but a post-doc researcher costs between 45,000 and 60,000 wherever they are based. The Descartes Prize represents a dozen or so post-docs, and for our long term collaboration, winning would make an enormous difference for the future,' he concluded.

For further information on the Descartes Prize, please consult the following web address: cartes/home.html

To read the EURAB recommendations on the Descartes Prize, please visit: /pdf/eurab_04_039_descartes_prize.pdf

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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