Thursday, February 21, 2013

Breakthrough Biology Bucks

The first winners of the "Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences" were announced on February 20, 2013.  Funded by wealthy patrons of the sciences (and most of them scientists themselves) Yuri Milner, Art Levinson, Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg, and Priscilla Chan, the purpose of the award is "to recognize excellence in research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life."  Each winner of a Breakthrough Prize receives US$3 million "with the aim of providing the recipients with more freedom and opportunity to pursue even greater future accomplishments."  The inaugural 11 laureates are Cornelia I. Bargmann, David Botstein, Lewis C. Cantley, Hans Clevers, Napoleone Ferrara, Titia de Lange, Eric S. Lander, Charles L. Sawyers, Bert Vogelstein, Robert A. Weinberg, Shinya Yamanaka.

Prizes have long been recognized as powerful alternatives to other incentives, such as patents.  They seem to be proliferating as the method of choice for successful business people to promote innovation in fields they favor.  As more and more prizes are created, it may become possible to compare their incentive effects against those of the patent system.  May the best method of spurring innovation win.