Oscars of Science: Breakthrough Awards hands out $21m to transform physicists into rockstars

The awards go to scientists, not screen idols. But the lucrative Breakthrough Prizes are increasingly being spoken of as rivals to the Oscars

In Hollywood this week, the talk was all about the Golden Globe nominations, but several hundred miles to the north, Silicon Valley’s biggest names were enjoying a new kind of awards ceremony – and they invited one of the film industry’s favourite sons to host it. On Thursday evening Kevin Spacey, fresh from his Best Actor nod for his performance in the Netflix drama series House of Cards, presented the second annual Breakthrough Prizes, an annual event to celebrate and reward scientists which is backed by some of the biggest names in the tech industry.

The prizes are intended to hail unsung scientists and their work, but also to build enthusiasm among young people about science as a potential career – not least by borrowing some of the glamour of showbiz. Several stars of film and television walked the red carpet at the spectacular awards venue: a vast former airship hangar at Nasa’s Ames Research Centre in Mountain View, mere minutes from Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters.

Among the attendees were actors Spacey, Glenn Close, Rob Lowe, Michael C Hall and Anna Kendrick, the comedian and talk-show host Conan O’Brien, and Dana Brunetti, the producer of The Social Network. They were joined by tech celebrities such as Google’s Eric Schmidt, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales.

The guests enjoyed a live musical performance by Lana Del Rey, and food prepared by chefs from legendary California restaurant The French Laundry. The evening was co-hosted by Vanity Fair magazine and produced by Don Mischer, who has previously produced or directed three Academy Awards ceremonies, as well as Super Bowl halftime shows, Olympics opening ceremonies and President Obama’s inauguration celebration in 2009. Thursday’s event will be broadcast on the Science Channel in January.

The awards are backed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin and his wife Anne Wojcicki, the co-founder of the genetic testing firm 23andMe; by Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan; and by Chinese web entrepreneur Jack Ma and his wife Cathy Zhang. They were all persuaded to offer their financial support by the awards’ creator, the billionaire Russian tech investor Yuri Milner, who describes the Breakthrough Prize as the “Oscars of science”.

The Breakthrough Prizes differ wildly from the Oscars in at least one respect, though: their winners come away with not only a fetching ornament for the mantelpiece, but also a major boost to their bank accounts. Each award is worth a whopping $3m (£1.83m) – almost three times as much as a Nobel Prize – to be used however the winner sees fit. Milner, who made his fortune from early investments in Facebook, Twitter and other major Silicon Valley firms, said scientists “should make at least a fraction of what some Wall Street trader makes”.

The prize recipients are those scientists deemed to have made “major breakthroughs”, that advance our “fundamental knowledge of the world”. This year they included Professor James Allison, of the Anderson Cancer Centre at the University of Texas, who identified a molecule that prevents the immune system battling cancer – and developed a drug to block that molecule.

Neuroscientist Mahlon DeLong of Emory University in Atlanta won for his ground-breaking work on Parkinson’s disease, while Richard Lifton, a biochemist from Yale’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute, was celebrated for uncovering the genes that cause hypertension. In all, six scientists were named as winners of a Breakthrough Prize for Life Sciences, while Michael Green of Cambridge University and John Schwarz from the California Institute of Technology shared the $3m Breakthrough Prize for Fundamental Physics, bringing the evening’s total prize haul to $21m.

The prizes have been criticised by some in the scientific sphere for burnishing the egos of their founders and winners, without addressing the broader need for better research funding. But Milner and his colleagues argue that leading scientists ought to be honoured just like the biggest stars in film and television, music and sport. Brin and Wojcicki said in a statement: “Scientists should be celebrated as heroes, and we are honoured to be part of today’s celebration.”

Speaking at the event, Spacey said: “Some 50 years ago the most famous person in the world was a scientist. Not a rock star, not a movie star. Albert Einstein was his name.”

Milner, who graduated from Moscow University with a degree in theoretical physics, awarded the first Fundamental Physics Prize in 2012. Next came the Life Sciences Prize, which he established to mark ground-breaking advances in the treatment of serious diseases, and thus the extension of human life. The first 11 Breakthrough Life Sciences laureates were announced in February and awarded their prizes at a ceremony in Geneva in March, hosted by Morgan Freeman.

The winners of each award are expected to join the illustrious judging committee for the following year’s nominees; the selection committee for the 2014 Fundamental Physics prize included Professor Stephen Hawking, who won a $3m prize last year. One of this year’s winner’s, Michael Green, took over from Hawking as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge in 2009. He shared the award with Schwarz for their work developing string theory, which holds that vibrating “strings” constitute the fundamental particle of the universe.

At the end of Thursday’s ceremony, Milner and unveiled yet another $3m Breakthrough Prize, this time for Mathematics. Announcing the creation of the new award, Milner quoted a former Nobel Prize-winner, saying, “Einstein said, ‘Pure mathematics is the poetry of logical ideas’. It is in this spirit that Mark and myself are announcing a new Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. The work that the Prize recognizes could be the foundation for genetic engineering, quantum computing or Artificial Intelligence; but above all, for human knowledge itself.”

Science stars: The new Breakthrough winners

The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences was awarded to six scientists for their work in helping to cure the world’s most feared diseases.

Mahlon DeLong (far left)

A neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, DeLong was honoured for pioneering work in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. He defined the areas of the brain that malfunction causing erratic movements that mark out a Parkinson’s sufferer, leading to the development of deep brain stimulation treatment.

Richard Lifton (third from left)

Lifton, of Yale University, was recognised for work in identifying genetic determinants that lead to hypertension.

Michael Hall (fourth from left)

Hall – no relation to actor Michael C Hall, who also attended the ceremony – is an American molecular biologist based at the University of Basel in Switzerland. In 1991 he and his team discovered the enzyme Target of Rapamycin (TOR), which controls cell growth and plays a central role in ageing, and in the development of diseases such as cancer.

Alexander Varshavsky (fifth from left)

Moscow-born Varshavsky,of the California Institute of Technology, won for his study of intracellular protein degradation, advancing the understanding and treatment of cancer, immunological and neurodegenerative diseases.

James Allison (sixth from left)

Allison, of the University of Texas Anderson Cancer Centre, won a $3m prize for his development of immunotherapy treatments for cancer. Allison identified an “immune checkpoint molecule” which hinders white blood cells from attacking tumours. He created an antibody drug, ipilumumab, which blocks the offending molecule and has extended the lives of patients with late-stage melanoma.

Robert Langer (sixth from left)

The David H Koch Institute Professor at MIT, where he oversees the world’s largest biomedical engineering lab, Langer was honoured for his development of controlled drug-release systems and biomaterials that administer drugs through the skin without the need for needles. A serial entrepreneur, Langer co-founded a start-up to produce biodegradable surgical glues for surgeons to use when closing wounds following operations.

The six winners of the Breakthrough Prize for Life Sciences were joined by Michael Green of Cambridge University (third from right) and John Schwarz of Caltech (fourth from right), who shared the $3m 2014 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for “opening new perspectives on quantum gravity and the unification of forces”. The  pair are pioneers of string theory, which posits that vibrating “strings” are  the fundamental particle of the universe.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
The monkey made several attempts to revive his friend before he regained consciousness
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick