The Breakthrough Prize Doesn’t

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.

“At least I’m more likely to star in the Happy Feet sequel”

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.

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5 Responses to The Breakthrough Prize Doesn’t

  1. Problem #2 – what is the Breakthrough Prize? I’ve never heard of it.

  2. Mike Fowler says:

    Couldn’t tell you. But then, I can’t tell you who won the mercury music prize last year. Or the booker bookman bookity bookbook prize. And I listen to music and read. Can you recall who won them? No cheating…

    • Bob O'H says:

      Was the Mercury Prize won by Mark Miodownik?

      That’s a fair point, and perhaps says something about the effects of prizes generally. I do remember that Darren Gough once won Strictly Come Dancing, though.

  3. I’ve not hear of this either, before or after! They must have a seriously stingy marketing budget.