Yesterday the recipients of next year’s Breakthrough Prize were announced. We’re told that these are meant to “elevate scientists to rock-star status” and to “inspire the next generation of scientists”. If that’s the aim, then they are going to be a dismal failure.
One reason for this failure is that the prize is given out to too many people at once. So the news becomes “big prizes given out”, rather than “X wins big prize”. If the point is to honour scientists, then the format shouldn’t hide them. The use of celebrity doesn’t help either, as that becomes the news focus. The BBC’s coverage takes 6 paragraphs to mention any of the winners, with only 4 paragraphs given over to the prize recipients (it ends with Athene Donald being rather critical. Was she coached by Dr. Aust?). The Guardian takes 7 paragraphs to mention the winners, but at least it lists the winners at the end of the piece.
Of course there are real rock stars of science, but I’m not sure the Breakthrough Prize really helps to showcase them. Partly because real rock stars look like this…
(spot the physicist on hiatus)
… and they don’t become rock stars by winning, say, the Mercury Prize. They get there through repeatedly being in the public eye with their music: that’s why they are rock stars, and not one hit wonders.
Rock stars also get that way by entertaining the public (which is, after all, their job). For scientists, too, their ability to attract the public eye is part of their rock star status. This is why Richard Feynman, say, is so well known. Being given a prize and then standing around like a penguin saying how wonderful it is doesn’t help, especially when you’ve had Benedict Cumberbatch doing the same thing earlier in the report.
Think I’m just being grumpy? Well, here’s a simple of whether the Breakthrough Prize has helped raise the profile of the winners: ask yourself how many of last year’s winners you can name without looking them up. And then how many of this year’s winners.