Last month 11 scientists were awarded $3 million each as winners of the first annual Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. The awards—funded by Google's Sergey Brin and his wife, Anne Wojcicki, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, and Russian investor Yuri Milner—are intended to recognize "excellence in research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life" and to "enhance medical innovation."
This type of prize is commendable, its generosity admirable. But it prompts a question: Will such a prize actually spur innovation or do anything to help society? Or will it be like those given to MacArthur Fellows, who receive $500,000 over five years? Last year the MacArthur winners included a marine ecologist and a stringed-instrument bow maker – in other words, those that are good at giving TED talks. Good for the winners, good for those giving out the money. For the rest of us? Not so much.