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Creating Hero Scientists With The Breakthrough Prize

The creators of the Breakthrough Prize want to do more than just reward scientists. They want to rebrand them.

Creating Hero Scientists With The Breakthrough Prize
Presenters Cameron Diaz and Dick Costolo speak onstage during the Breakthrough Prize Awards Ceremony [Photo: Steve Jennings, Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize]

If scientists and engineers are changing the world, why aren’t they being lauded like movie stars?

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The Breakthrough Prizes aim to do just that, by bringing the worlds of investors, scientists, and celebrities together to recognize outstanding contributions in physics, mathematics, and life sciences.

“The idea is making heroes of the scientists,” says Karl Johansson, executive director of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation. “We wanted to honor those looking at the big questions and issues, and pair them with philanthropy and entertainment, which elevates their gifts and contributions.”

(L-R) UCLA professor Terence Tao, Harvard University professor Jacob Lurie, Institute for Advanced Study mathmatician Richard Taylor, Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques professor Maxim Kontsevich, and Stony Brook University and Imperial College London professor Simon Donaldson.Photo: Steve Jennings, Getty Images

This year’s second annual event saw $36 million in prizes doled out to top scientists at a star-studded gala at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA, hosted by Cosmos executive producer Seth MacFarlane with presenters Cameron Diaz, Kate Beckinsale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jon Hamm, and Christina Aguilera. The ceremony airs Nov. 15 on both Discovery and Science channels and Nov. 22 on BBC Worldwide.

Kate Beckinsale and SpaceX’s Elon MuskPhoto: Steve Jennings, Getty Images

The prizes were founded by tech giants and their wives: Google’s Sergey Brin and 23andMe’s Anne Wojcicki, Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang; DST Global’s Yuri and Julia Milner, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan.

“Over time they talked about what they were doing together, and realized that the basic framework for what they had done, and why they’d been successful was science,” says Johansson. “Yuri, in particular, began thinking about how you make a difference besides just building certain enterprises.”

(L-R) Cameron Diaz, Breakthrough Prize‪ winners Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, and Twitter CEO Dick CostoloPhoto: Steve Jennings, Getty Images

Scientists are nominated and judged by those in their field. Winners, ranging from Alim-Louis Benabid, whose Deep Brain Stimulation has been used to treat Parkinson’s Disease, to physicists Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt, and Adam Riess, whose ongoing work points to the accelerated pace of the expansion of the universe (see all the winners here) earn $3 million each, which they can do with as they please, but usually put back into their research. They also speak at a symposium the day after the gala, conduct another lecture during the year, and help judge the following year’s competition.

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“Since it sometimes takes decades to see the practical applications of scientific breakthroughs, our focus is more on the breakthrough knowledge than what it leads to,” says Johansson.

“We’re rebranding scientists,” he adds. Down the road, “we’re looking for the investors, scientists, and entertainers to develop a longer-term relationships. We’re trying to figure out how to change the perception of scientists on a larger basis, how we can tell their stories better, and make a difference in how people select scientific careers.”

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About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio

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