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Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN

At $3 Million, New Award Gives Medical Researchers a Dose of Celebrity

By  in the New York Times
Published: February 20, 2013

Eleven scientists, most of them American, were scheduled to be named on Wednesday as the first winners of the world’s richest academic prize for medicine and biology — $3 million each, more than twice the amount of the Nobel Prize.

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Yuri Milner, an entrepreneur.

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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Sergey Brin of Google.

Fred Prouser/Reuters

Anne Wojcicki of 23andMe, a genetics company.

Stephen Lam/Getty Images

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.

The award, the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, was established by four Internet titans led by Yuri Milner, a Russian entrepreneur and philanthropist who caused a stir last summer when he began giving physicists $3 million awards.

The others, whom Mr. Milner described as old friends, are Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google; Anne Wojcicki, the founder of the genetics company 23andMe and Mr. Brin’s wife; and Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. They plan to give five awards annually.

Ms. Wojcicki said the prize was meant to reward scientists “who think big, take risks and have made a significant impact on our lives.”

“These scientists should be household names and heroes in society,” she said.

Many of the first winners have done work on the intricate genetics of cell growth and how it can go wrong to produce cancer. The new prize was scheduled to be announced at a news conference in San Francisco, along with the following recipients:

Cornelia I. Bargmann, who investigates the nervous system and behavior at Rockefeller University.

David Botstein of Princeton University, who maps disease markers in the human genome.

Lewis C. Cantley of Weill Cornell Medical College, who discovered a family of enzymes related to cell growth and cancer.

Dr. Hans Clevers of the Hubrecht Institute in the Netherlands, who has studied how processes in adult stem cells can go wrong and cause cancer.

Dr. Napoleone Ferrara of the University of California, San Diego, whose work on tumor growth has led to therapies for some kinds of cancer and eye disease.

Titia de Lange, who works on telomeres, the protective tips on the ends of chromosomes, at Rockefeller University.

Eric S. Lander of the Broad Institute of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a leader of theHuman Genome Project.

Dr. Charles L. Sawyers of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who has investigated the signaling pathways that drive a cell to cancer.

Dr. Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins University, who discovered a protein that suppresses the growth of tumors and devised a model for the progression of colon cancer that is widely used in colonoscopy.

Robert A. Weinberg of M.I.T., who discovered the first human oncogene, a gene that when mutated causes cancer.

Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, who has done groundbreaking work in developing stem cells.

In an interview, Dr. Lander said he was shocked to win the award, calling it “a staggering sum for an individual prize.”

“Their idea seems to be to grab society’s attention, to send a message that science is exciting, important, cool, our future,” he said. “It’s a very important message here in the U.S.” Dr. Lander said he would use the prize money to help pay for new approaches to teaching biology online.

The new awards are in some ways an outgrowth of Mr. Milner’s Fundamental Physics Prizes. In July, he gave $3 million each to nine theoretical physicists, and the next round is scheduled to be awarded on March 20 in Geneva.

But even as Mr. Milner was starting the physics prize, he was thinking of extending the concept to the life sciences. He reached out to Arthur D. Levinson, the chairman of Apple and a former chief executive of Genentech, the biotech company, and Dr. Levinson, in consultation with his colleagues, helped Mr. Milner select the first Breakthrough winners. These winners will form a committee that will select future winners, Mr. Milner said.

The founders said their goal was to “move the needle” of public awareness of scientists who have spent their lives advancing human knowledge.

With so much focus on sports and movie celebrities, Dr. Levinson said, the prizewinners “can share the stage with the people who on some deeper level have made important contributions.”

The founders said they hoped to attract more sponsors and increase the number of annual winners. Anyone can send a nomination to the foundation’s new Web site.

There are no age or other limits on who can win. Any number of people can share an award. And in particular, Mr. Milner said, there are no limits on how many times one individual can win. “If you’re Einstein,” he said, “you will be getting three.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 23, 2013

An article on Wednesday about the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences quoted incorrectly from comments by Eric S. Lander, one of the recipients. He called the award “a staggering sum for an individual prize,” not “a staggering amount of money for a scientist.” An accompanying picture caption repeated the erroneous phrase “a staggering amount.”

SOURCE:

Scientists Receive a New Physics Prize

By 

Published: July 31, 2012

Physicists are rarely wealthy or famous, but a new prize rewarding research at the field’s cutting edges has made nine of them instant multimillionaires.

Yuri Milner
Simon Dawson/Bloomberg News

Yuri Milner

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The nine are recipients of the Fundamental Physics Prize, established by Yuri Milner, a Russian physics student who dropped out of graduate school in 1989 and later earned billions investing in Internet companies like Facebook and Groupon.

“It knocked me off my feet,” said Alan H. Guth, a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was among the winners. He came up with the idea of cosmic inflation, that there was a period of extremely rapid expansion in the first instant of the universe.

When he was told of the $3 million prize, he assumed that the money would be shared among the winners. Not so: Instead, each of this year’s nine recipients will receive $3 million, the most lucrative academic prize in the world. TheNobel Prize currently comes with an award of $1.2 million, usually split by two or three people. The Templeton Prize, which honors contributions to understanding spiritual dimensions of life, has been the largest monetary award given to an individual, $1.7 million this year.

The $3 million has already appeared in Dr. Guth’s bank account, one that had had a balance of $200. “Suddenly, it said, $3,000,200,” he said. “The bank charged a $12 wire transfer fee, but that was easily affordable.”

Mr. Milner said that he wanted to recognize advances in delving into the deepest mysteries of physics and the universe. “This intellectual quest to understand the universe really defines us as human beings,” he said.

Four of the physicists work at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.: Nima Arkani-HamedJuan MaldacenaNathan Seiberg and Edward Witten. They work on theories trying to tie together the basic particles and forces of the universe, particularly with a mathematical machinery known as string theory.

The other winners are Andrei Linde, a physicist at Stanford who also worked on cosmic inflation; Alexei Kitaev, a professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology who works on quantum computers; Maxim Kontsevich, a mathematician at the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies outside Paris whose abstract mathematical findings proved useful to physicists unraveling string theory; and Ashoke Sen, a string theorist at Harish-Chandra Research Institute in India.

Mr. Milner personally selected the inaugural group, but future recipients of the Fundamental Physics Prize, to be awarded annually, will be decided by previous winners.

He declined to explain in detail how he selected which accomplishments to honor or why all of the winners are men. “I truly see this as a start,” Mr. Milner said. “Going forward, it’s going to be up to the committee to make those considerations.”

According to the rules, the prize in future years may be split among multiple winners, and a researcher will be able to win more than once. Mr. Milner also announced that there would be a $100,000 prize to honor promising young researchers.

Unlike the Nobel in physics, the Fundamental Physics Prize can be awarded to scientists whose ideas have not yet been verified by experiments, which often occurs decades later. Sometimes a radical new idea “really deserves recognition right away because it expands our understanding of at least what is possible,” Mr. Milner said.

Dr. Arkani-Hamed, for example, has worked on theories about the origin of the Higgs boson, the particle thought to have been discovered recently at the Large Hadron Colliderin Switzerland, and about how that collider could discover new dimensions. None of his theories have been proved yet. He said several were “under strain” because of the new data.

Several of the winners said they hoped that the new prize, with its large cash award, would help raise recognition of physics and draw more students into the field. “It’ll be great to have this sort of showcase for what’s going on in the subject every year,” Dr. Arkani-Hamed said.

The winners said they had not yet decided what to do with their windfall.

“There are some rather mundane things, like paying out the mortgage,” said Mr. Kitaev, who added that he was thinking about putting some of the money into education efforts.

“My success is in large part due to good education, my teachers and the atmosphere of excitement in science when I grew up,” he said. “I might try to help restore this atmosphere as much as I can.”

Dr. Guth agreed. “I do think prizes like this help put across to the public that fundamental physics is important, and it’s not just heavyweight boxing that’s worthy of prizes,” he said.

But he was going to warn his students not to get the wrong idea. “Certainly, it’s still not a great idea to go into physics for the money,” he said.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: August 1, 2012

An article on Tuesday about the new Fundamental Physics Prize misattributed a quotation by a winner about how he would spend the $3 million in prize money. It was Alexei Kitaev, a professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology — not Maxim Kontsevich, a mathematician at the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies outside Paris who is among the eight other prizewinners — who said, in part, “There are some rather mundane things, like paying out the mortgage.” The article also gave an outdated amount for the monetary award to winners of the Nobel Prize. The prize was reduced this year to about $1.2 million, from about $1.5 million.

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