A band of tech billionaires just announced a new foundation set up to reward the super smart scientists who are working on the toughest problems in life science. Put quite simply, the so-called Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation — funded jointly by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner — will reward $3 million to eleven scientists who are coming up with new ways of extending human life and curing diseases.
The list of inaugural winners includes everyone from Eric Lander, who's shedding new light on human disease genes and how they can be adjusted, to Lewis Cantly, the guy who discovered the enzymes at the root of cancer. After this inaugural wave of 11 awards, the Breakthrough Prize will go to five people annually for the rest of time. Or until the billionaires run out of money — whichever comes first.
Zuckerberg and company's move into science prize territory will probably irk the folks at the Nobel Foundation. At $3 million a pop, the Breakthrough Prize is almost three times what the Nobel Foundations hands out every year ($1.1 million) and opens up the nomination process to regular mortals like you and me. Unlike the Nobel which is capped at three, each prize can go to an unlimited number of people, a key difference in a world where scientific breakthroughs rarely happen in small groups.
The winners then join a committee that selects subsequent winners, though it'll take many years for that to grow to the 3,000 or so individuals who help pick the Nobel winners. When all's said and one, the Breakthrough Prize winners are expected to do some public speaking about their research and, presumably, keep researching. There is no awards ceremony.
In a matter of speaking, this is all about the quest for immortality, isn't it? It's easy to joke about how Zuck willing to fork over a few million so that he has a better chance of living forever, but that would be disingenuous, since when Zuckerberg-sponsored scientists make breakthroughs everybody wins. Until the robots take over.