For Science and Glory

A multi-million prize has been granted to five mathematicians. The NYT reports about it! According to their colleagues, they all largely deserve this prize and they are all a bit annoyed by the amount that they received. I have no doubt that they will use it in the best way (see the article for more details). I was just wondering what the point of these huge prizes was.

I think that Milner tries to use in Science a proven method that was succesful in sport and arts: to transform the best performers in rock-star and to make the whole system revolve around a small elite which is easier to control. 

I am not sure that it will work for the benefit of science (but did it work for the benefit of sport or music? I let you judge). These prizes can be rewarded to two types of persons:

– the true geniuses: I can bet that most of them are not interested by the money and will not choose an area of research because you can win million of dollars but because it is interesting. Otherwise they would work in Fast Trading.

– the guys who can manipulate the system. There are such people with an established network, a lab with powerful equipment and bright team under their supervision and they can get the benefit of the research on their name. 

There is a potential risk that these prizes finish in the end in the pocket of the last class of scientists, which would be bad news, of course.

More generally, I am still surprised by the existence of these prizes. There are more and more of them, even at the lowest levels, like mine. Each conference has now several rewards to distribute in the form of money (best poster, best young scientist, best good-looking experiment). I don’t know exactly how they are given and, above all, I do not see the point. I don’t want to sound naive but the ultimate reward in science is to see one’s work accepted by the community. And it is already an enormous victory.

A prize gives the impression that science for the sake of science is not anymore enough, like a sign of boredom. So you give money to spice up the game. It would be a pity…

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