Prizes and awards have an important role to play in recognising and publicising good science but how much more could be gained if we expand our idea of success?
The previous few weeks have been dominated by one thing: the Nobel prize in chemistry. The winners – Frances Arnold for her work on the directed evolution of enzymes, and George Smith and Greg Winter for pioneering phage display techniques and using them to revolutionise drug development – have been thrust into the brightest spotlight on the science stage and, deservedly, received the applause and rewards that come with it. You can read Emma Stoye’s feature to get a comprehensive view of the science, as well as contributions from the winners themselves and a host of experts.
Could science benefit from some mainstream celebrity appeal? Perhaps.
It’s hard to imagine a greater act of recognition than winning a Nobel prize and, for chemistry at least, it happens to be the most valuable prize too. Recipients receive around $1 million give or take, based on the exchange rate and the performance of the late Alfred Nobel’s estate, managed by the Nobel Foundation set up at the end of the 19th century. Larger cash prizes exist though – the Breakthrough prizes (for life sciences, physics and mathematics) award around $3 million per prize, making them the largest monetary science prizes in the world. Breakthrough is backed by a board of internet entrepreneurs including Sergey Brin (Google), Mark Zukerberg (Facebook) and Yuri Milner (DST Global – a major tech investor linked to WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, Spotify, Airbnb and many others).
Is a trend toward ever greater prize purses and personal stylists necessarily a good step? Perhaps not.
The Breakthroughs are undoubtedly very sexy, star-studded affairs – Morgan Freeman hosted the 2018 awards, Ashton Kutcher and Miss USA Kara McCullough presented prizes, and the ceremony was produced by Vanity Fair magazine. Pierce Brosnan has just been announced as the next host and we all know he looks great in a tux. The Nobel ceremony at Stockholm City Hall (or Oslo City Hall for the peace prize) is grand and befitting of the celebration but I doubt we’ll see fashion magazines commenting on red carpet dresses. Could science benefit from some mainstream celebrity appeal? Perhaps. But is a trend toward ever greater prize purses and personal stylists necessarily a good step? Perhaps not.
Phil Ball draws many interesting points from the conversation about the whys and wherefores of scientific prizes. There’s agreement that prizes are probably a good thing; they get people talking about science, give researchers some well-deserved recognition and can be used to give a leg-up to the underrepresented or underappreciated. Jeremy Sanders talks about the need for success to encompass a more ‘holistic view of achievement and lifestyle’, and to apply ‘genuine human intelligence and compassion in assessment and recognition’. Rewards for teaching, mentoring or improving inclusivity and diversity for example, as well as valuing those who live well-rounded lives supporting family, friends and activties outside of the lab. The reward here is not a fat cheque, a moment of fame or another trophy for the cabinet but instead the overall health of chemistry and chemists and of our communities and citizens. Deirdre Black, head of research and innovation at the Royal Society of Chemistry, agrees and notes that not only are organisations expanding the range of excellence that they reward with prizes but that there is also a profound opportunity for recognition to ‘act as a powerful incentive or signal’ to address challenges and drive change and improvement.
Right now the Royal Society of Chemistry is taking a hard look at its prizes and awards programme, with an independent review group chaired by Jeremy Sanders, to establish what recognition should look like for chemistry and chemists. I encourage you to get involved by getting in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org to give your view on what we should be celebrating in 2019 and beyond. Who knows, maybe you’ll help put somebody on the front cover of Chemistry World next year. I can’t promise a make-up artist will be on hand though.