What Makes a Breakthrough?

Until a few days ago, I’d never really thought very much about the Breakthrough Prize, a huge collection of prizes created by Mark Zuckerberg and friends. Or, more precisely a smallish collection of huge prizes, the big ones each being worth $3M. However, there is nothing like a phone call from the BBC to concentrate the mind and to encourage a little research. You might think why would I bother to engage on this but, as it happened, when I was approached on Friday night I had just turned down a separate invitation from the Beeb. They had wanted me to nip up to Salford for a 7am Monday sofa chat to discuss YourLife (a Government initiative to encourage girls to stick with maths and physics) and I was feeling guilty that, as a female scientist, I perhaps wasn’t doing my bit to be a visible spokesperson. The reason I declined the Salford interview, actually on a topic much closer to my heart, was simple: geography. I hope Manchester scientists are doing their bit to engage with the BBC now that the studios are on their doorstep but it’s a nightmare of a journey from Cambridge at any time of day and a Breakfast show definitely means an overnight stay. On the other hand, I was in London on Monday anyhow and to fit in a quick visit (under half an hour in total) to Broadcasting House was easy.

So, what do I think about the Breakthrough Prize? You won’t know the answer since I doubt many of readers of my blog watch BBC World at half past two on a weekday afternoon. A few quotes were extracted from me by phone in advance having pulled me out of my morning meeting, not ideal circumstances to come up with a prescient and publishable soundbite. I am far from convinced that this Prize is the best way to go to ‘inspire the next generation’ which I believe is one of the instigators’ aims. I am all in favour of trying to do so but is ‘scientist as celebrity’ really an optimum strategy? What message does this give our young, other than that scientists look rather like the rest of the human race and are not permanently dressed in white lab coats. No, apparently they can don evening wear and smile at cameras if the price is right. (My OT coblogger Bob O’Hara has also commented negatively on this topic.)

I was very impressed by my interviewer Lucy Hockings. She (or at least her researcher) remembered that she had interviewed me a year ago in the wake of the Women’s Hour 100 women list which sadly lacked scientists amongst their number (I wrote about it here and you can see more about it here). She recalled the discussions we had had and why I felt there remain issues about attracting girls into subjects like physics, so I was able to give this topic airtime (and sneak in a bit about YourLife too) on the back of the Breakthrough Prize. It meant I actually said less about the Prize and more about education than perhaps I had expected.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t grudge these people their prizes. If, as winner Saul Perlmutter  said, they share the $3M out amongst the team that’s even better. But I would like to see the evidence that this is a good use of the money, not least because of the Hollywood glitz of the ceremony itself. The prize money may be eye-watering but we are not told what the rest of the bill for the evening added up to. With Hollywood stars such as Cameron Diaz and UK’s very own Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch handing out the prizes, even without the champagne things cannot have come cheap. How many disadvantaged kids could have attended summer courses at MIT for the price of all this? Even if just one of the celebs were invited along to such an MIT course to add that star-spangled glitz that the organisers assume is what is required to fire up the young, it would have been a bargain. Science on its own isn’t enough, it needs (apparently) glamour. No, I’m not convinced this is the best way forward.

On the other hand, we could look at how the Longitude Prize is setting about its outreach. This week sees the launch of its Schools Challenger competition, a chance for school children (age 11-16) to get stuck in. To my mind this is a much better way to reach out and inspire the next generation rather than aiming to convince them that scientists equate with celebrities. By and large scientists don’t and furthermore I don’t think we collectively would want to. Benedict Cumberbatch may have done the voiceover on Stephen Hawking’s Discovery Channel programme and be playing the part of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game but I don’t really see him as a fruitful role model for aspiring scientists. If we want to excite the young about science let’s make sure we have good science teachers, sensible curricula, plenty of extracurricular activities, adequate careers advice and visible – but genuine – role models. Glitz may inspire individuals for 24 hours but I don’t think it is likely to be a long-term wise investment, alhough it may reduce Zuckerberg’s taxes.


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4 Responses to What Makes a Breakthrough?

  1. Agree 100 percent with this. Too many prizes, too little money for people who do the hard work. Same for Nobel prizes -nobody (well hardly anybody) works because they might get a Nobel in the future. They make a lot more people miserable than they make happy, and a certain number of winners get a bit mad and start pontificating about consciousness.

  2. Susan Lea says:

    I think you’re right – scientists are generally driven by the next annoying question rather than a vanishingly small chance of having to buy a designer evening gown. Having said that a scheme to get Benedict Cumberbatch into your lab would certainly inspire my team…

  3. Jane Bernal says:

    Thought of Pierre Curie at an official banquet calculating how many laboratories could be equipped from the sale of the jewels on display on the female guests.

  4. Colin G. Finlay says:

    Of course, the true Socialist , “Equality – for – All” prize is The Lottery. Reward with equal opportunity but, of course, without work of mind.

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