Today the Kavli Foundation handed out a trio of Nobel-like prizes in the disciplines of astrophysics, nanotechnology, and neuroscience, as my colleague Nikhil Swaminathan described earlier today. I have just one little question: Why? What purpose is possibly served by these awards?

No disrespect to the winners (who are eminently worthy) or the Kavli Foundation (a great friend of basic science), but if had to list the things that science needs right now, hanging more medals around the same necks would be pretty much near the bottom of the list. The two recipients of the astrophysics Kavli have already won the field’s greatest accolades, such as the Bruce Medal, Royal Astronomical Society Gold Medal, and Russell Lectureship. I bet they’d be the first to admit they don’t need another.

These awards, however well deserved or intentioned, represent a winner-take-all system that is toxic to science. Most researchers bend over backwards to acknowledge how their work depends on the contributions of so many other people. But awards focus attention on a few individuals – and they tend to be the same individuals, over and over again. These individuals get into a virtuous cycle of award-collecting and grant-getting, while others, no less deserving, languish in obscurity.

I know so many young scientists who have had to seek other careers or struggle in low­paid positions with zero institutional support. At poorly funded institutions such as the City University of New York, faculty members have to buy their own chalk and have trouble getting grants to buy so much as a laptop. At institutions rich and poor alike, faculty members frequently spend more time writing grant proposals than doing research. Is that really an efficient use of foundation or taxpayer money? Do the benefits of competition really justify the crushingly heavy overhead? Many scientists, including a National Academy of Sciences panel in 2005, have worried that the system for funding research puts young scientists at a disadvantage and discourages the risk-taking so essential to pushing back the frontiers. All of us suffer as a result.

Kavli does such a great job with its institutes and endowed faculty positions. Wouldn’t it have been great if the foundation had spent its $3 million on, say, endowed postdoc positions, or at least had awarded the prizes to teams rather than individuals? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that awards are more about the awarders than the awardees. By recognizing people whom everyone already recognizes, an award-giver basks in their reflected glory, while doing little to add to the sum of human knowledge.

Share your wisdom

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.