Last week, more than a century after Alfred Nobel gave most of his will to create the Nobel Prize, three entrepreneurs raised the bar again. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sergey Brin and venture capitalist Yuri Milner gave $33 million to 11 scientists in their newest venture, a philanthropic organization awarding prizes to life scientists.
“Curing a disease should be worth more than scoring a touchdown,” Brin said, so the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation rewards those who have made significant strides in research that will extend human life.
Critics point out that because the reward—$3.3 million to each winning scientist—does not come until the end of a long career, it hardly acts as an incentive for kids heady with dreams of athletic fame and movie star fortune. Further, they say, science is collaborative, and rewarding an individual devalues the teamwork inherent in real innovation. And while R&D is key, utilizing the scientists we have may be more important than motivating new ones. After all, in the life sciences, more doctoral graduates leave school unemployed than with a job.
But the founding sponsors and Breakthrough Prize chair Art Levinson—who also chairs Apple–hope to inspire more appreciation for scientists, especially those whose work saves lives. (The prize does not recognize achievements from different fields of science like geology, zoology or taxonomy.)
Their support isn’t bad for business either: companies have begun to realize the importance of corporate social responsibility, which investors increasingly view as a selling point and some employees (especially Millennials) count as non-negotiable. In fact, a 2008 survey suggests that almost 90 percent of Millennials seek employers with social responsibility values similar to their own and that 86 would consider leaving a company where that is not the case.