Apple, Facebook and Google announce new $33M science prize

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg smiles at the crowd gathered at the Life Sciences Breakthrough Prize announcement …Move over Nobel, there's a new science prize on the block, thanks to the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation — a "not-for-profit corporation dedicated to advancing breakthrough research, celebrating scientists and generating excitement about the pursuit of science as a career," according to their website.

This new $33 million dollar annual prize is split between 11 different recipients, to reward excellence in research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life.

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The founding sponsors of the prize — Apple Chairman Art Levinson, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and his wife Anne Wojcicki, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, and early Facebook investor Yuri Milner — chose the following 11 scientists to receive this year's award:

Cornelia I. Bargmann — For the genetics of neural circuits and behavior, and synaptic guidepost molecules
David Botstein — For linkage mapping of Mendelian disease in humans using DNA polymorphisms
Lewis C. Cantley — For the discovery of PI 3-Kinase and its role in cancer metabolism
Hans Clevers — For describing the role of Wnt signaling in tissue stem cells and cancer
Napoleone Ferrara — For discoveries in the mechanisms of angiogenesis that led to therapies for cancer and eye diseases
Titia de Lange — For research on telomeres, illuminating how they protect chromosome ends and their role in genome instability in cancer
Eric S. Lander — For the discovery of general principles for identifying human disease genes, and enabling their application to medicine through the creation and analysis of genetic, physical and sequence maps of the human genome
Charles L. Sawyers — For cancer genes and targeted therapy
Bert Vogelstein — For cancer genomics and tumor suppressor genes
Robert A. Weinberg — For characterization of human cancer genes
Shinya Yamanaka — For induced pluripotent stem cells

Each recipient receives a total of $3 million from the Foundation, and will not only be on the committee to choose next year's award winners, but will also be invited to give lectures to raise public awareness of their work and the value of science.

"Our society needs more heroes who are scientists, researchers and engineers," said Zuckerberg, in a statement. "We need to celebrate and reward the people who cure diseases, expand our understanding of humanity and work to improve people’s lives. At $3 million per prize, it’s the largest prize for this work in the world. I’m hopeful this serves as a blueprint for prizes and philanthropy in other fields as well."

"I am delighted to announce the launch of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences and welcome its first recipients," Levinson added. "I believe this new prize will shine a light on the extraordinary achievements of the outstanding minds in the field of life sciences, enhance medical innovation, and ultimately become a platform for recognizing future discoveries."

Anne Wojcicki probably summed up their feelings best: "We are thrilled to support scientists who think big, take risks and have made a significant impact on our lives. These scientists should be household names and heroes in society."

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The intention of the Prize is not only to award achievement, but also to encourage the recipients (or at least give them the freedom) to pursue areas of research that are on the cutting edge, and enable them to start on these projects without them having to wait months as they write grant proposal after grant proposal, or go company-by-company to seek out private investors.

However, the Prize has come under some criticism, mainly based on its narrow focus. "Life sciences" include a broad range of research areas other than just those that deal with cancer, disease and extending human life, and research in other fields, such as ecology, botany and environmental sciences, can also have a profound effect on human disease and longevity. So the hope is that this year's recipients will extend their search a bit further to include other sciences as well, and since the Prize does accept nominations from the public (or it will soon), that does offer a way to bring deserving scientists to the selection committee's attention.

(Image courtesy: The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation)

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