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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

Tim Walker
Friday 13 December 2013 15:33 GMT

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.

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