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Work rewarded

Prizes for researchers multiply in Brazil and abroad

2015 Breakthrough Prize ceremony in the United States: program reminiscent of the Oscars

Steve Jurvetson2015 Breakthrough Prize ceremony in the United States: program reminiscent of the OscarsSteve Jurvetson

The Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (Capes) and the Brazilian cosmetics firm Natura launched the Capes Natura-Campus Prize for Excellence in Research on November 11, 2015, to recognize the best scientific papers on sustainability and biodiversity.  The award ceremony will be held on June 5, 2016 – World Environment Day – and the winners will receive cash prizes of R$25,000, along with a certificate.  The goal is to foster the publication of papers in high-impact science journals and acknowledge early career researchers.  The initiative joins the ranks of other awards that pay tribute to researchers in Brazil, such as the Almirante Álvaro Alberto Prize and the prizes in Art, Science, Culture, and Medicine that are sponsored by the Conrado Wessel Foundation (FCW).  “Brazil has few experiences in this area compared to countries like the United States,” says Carlos Nobre, Capes president.  “The winners become role models, help disseminate the values of science throughout society, and inspire new generations.”  New science awards have been emerging on the world stage as well, some of which distribute millions of dollars.

In the realm of science and technology, these monetary rewards go beyond paying tribute.  “These prizes make their greatest effect felt on the researcher’s reputation,” says Elizabeth Balbachevsky of the Department of Political Science at the University of São Paulo’s School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences (FFLCH-USP).  “An award-winning researcher earns peer respect, and this helps him or her garner funds for relevant research,” says the professor, who points out that recognition can be attained through other means, for example, by publishing high-impact articles.  The benefits of the prize are not always immediate.  “Winning a prize doesn’t advance your career overnight.  But it helps boost a researcher’s notability and credibility and nourishes a cumulative, long-term process.”

The monetary value involved sometimes attracts candidates to these awards.  This is true of the Breakthrough Prize, which on November 8, 2015, gave $3 million to each laureate in the areas of the Life Sciences, Mathematics, and Fundamental Physics.  Inaugurated in 2012, the award is sponsored by major entrepreneurs such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sergey Brin.  The prize is worth nearly triple the Nobel, but the creators say they do not want to compete with science’s most important honor, which has been presented for 114 years.  “There is a message here that science is a much more collective effort than it was 100 years ago.  It is international, it is diverse, it involves lots of people,” said another prize sponsor, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, during the award ceremony held at a NASA research center in California.

UFMG educator Magda Becker Soares received the 2015 Almirante Álvaro Alberto Prize

Cristina Lacerda/ABC UFMG educator Magda Becker Soares received the 2015 Almirante Álvaro Alberto PrizeCristina Lacerda/ABC

The Nobel committee selects a maximum of three researchers per science category.  The Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics was shared by Yifang Wang, from China; Atsuto Suzuki, from Japan; and some 1,380 collaborators, who took part in a broad study that made discoveries about oscillations in neutrinos, one of the fundamental particles of matter.  One month earlier, Taka-aki Kajita, a Japanese scientist at the University of Tokyo, and Arthur B. McDonald, a Canadian at Queen’s University, earned the Nobel Prize in Physics for their research into neutrinos.

One feature of the latest international awards is that a good share emphasize the application of science and new knowledge to solving social issues.  In 2014, for example, the scientists James Alison of the University of Texas and Tasuku Honjo of Kyoto University in Japan received around $1.6 million for their discovery of molecules that have the potential to treat cancer.  The money was part of the Tang Prize, created in 2012 by Chinese entrepreneur Samuel Yin, who is known for promoting philanthropic initiatives.  According to Yin, the prize has a greater commitment to research than to researchers – in other words, its goal is to support promising studies and not necessarily to honor scientists for their career work.  Yin told the magazine Nature that this is his way of “contributing to world development.”

The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, introduced in 2013 by Britain’s Royal Academy of Engineering with the backing of private sponsors, also draws attention because of the substantial sum it bestows on each recipient – roughly $1.5 million.  The distinction first went to five researchers from France, England, and the United States.  In 2015, only one scientist won: Robert Langer, an American who works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  The author of over 1,300 scientific papers in the areas of biochemistry and nanotechnology, Langer was one of the first researchers in the world to use polymers to control the delivery of large molecular-weight drugs in the human body to treat mental illness and cancer.  On the night of the ceremony, Langer was handed his medal by Queen Elizabeth herself.

Initiatives like these have sparked criticism.  In an interview featured in a 2013 Nature article, Jack Stilgoe, a lecturer in science policy at University College London, said that big prizes like Breakthrough tend to benefit their sponsors more than research itself, because the sponsors can promote themselves as supporters of science.

The physicist Frank Wilczek, MIT professor and a 2004 Nobel laureate, also expressed doubts about these mega-prizes.  In his view, it remains to be evaluated whether the initiatives actually contribute to scientific development or amount to nothing more than razzle-dazzle.  Wilczek’s remark is a reference to the fact that ceremonies like Breakthrough’s, for example, are often reminiscent of the Oscars: they are broadcast live on television, complete with red carpets and Hollywood entertainer hosts like actor Morgan Freeman.  In the opinion of Capes President Carlos Nobre, this does not necessarily constitute a problem.  “Sports and entertainment celebrities are the icons today, especially for young people.  Why not use this same model so science can reach more of society?” he asks.

Alline Cristina de Campos, one of the recipients of the L’Oreal Prize for Women in Science: award money will fund research

Personal archivesAlline Cristina de Campos, one of the recipients of the L’Oreal Prize for Women in Science: award money will fund researchPersonal archives

Amid these controversies, an inevitable question arises: What real impact does an award have on a recipient’s career?  The answer may vary with the country.  The university system in the United States is highly competitive and allows researchers mobility between institutions.  In this context, a researcher who appears on TV receiving a million-dollar prize may have greater bargaining power when it comes time to obtain funding or negotiate his or her salary.  Conversely, in Brazil and some European countries like France and Germany, where the university system is more rigid and working conditions are generally defined by career level, a prize carries more of a symbolic weight on a researcher’s résumé.

“In Brazil, faculty members who are hired as civil servants have tenure, which contributes to their settling into an institution very early on,” explains Balbachevsky, who believes that in Brazil scientific awards are more likely to signal a stellar career than to push a researcher up the ladder.  “The tradition in Brazilian awards is to honor scientists who have already earned acclaim.  This is a way of letting younger researchers know what the science community expects of them.”

The surgeon and researcher Angelita Habr-Gama, professor at the USP School of Medicine, says that after receiving the 2010 FCW Prize in Medicine, she enjoyed greater recognition even outside the science community.  “Undergraduate and graduate students started seeing me as a model to be followed.  I feel very honored by it,” she says.  The archeologist Niède Guidon, founder and director of the Museum of the American Man Foundation (FUMDHAM), allocated part of the R$300,000 she received from her 2013 FCW Prize to speed up construction of the São Raimundo Nonato airport in the state of Piauí – a project under state government responsibility that is years behind schedule.  The Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) had made the airport one of the contingencies for releasing funding for construction of the Nature Museum in the nearby town of Coronel José Dias.  “The prize’s biggest impact was that I was able to help the community where I work and live,” says Guidon.

Launched in 2002, the FCW Prize goes to individuals or organizations in the fields of art, science, medicine, and culture.  The prizewinner in each category currently receives R$300,000.  Over the past thirteen years, 100 recipients have been chosen by a committee of ten representatives from science institutions that partner with the foundation, including the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), and the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC).  “The Conrado Wessel Foundation is the institution that grants the greatest number of awards to scientific figures in Brazil,” explains José Caricati, FCW superintendent.  “We sponsor other prizes.  We have agreements with the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development [CNPq], which – along with the Brazilian Navy – awards the Almirante Álvaro Alberto Prize, and also with Capes for its Dissertation Grand Prize.”

The archeologist Niède Guidon donated part of her R$300,000 FCW Prize money to construction works on an airport in the town of São Raimundo Nonato, Piauí

André PessoaThe archeologist Niède Guidon donated part of her R$300,000 FCW Prize money to construction works on an airport in the town of São Raimundo Nonato, PiauíAndré Pessoa

The Almirante Álvaro Alberto Prize is regarded as Brazil’s top distinction in science and technology.  It resembles the FCW award and recognizes one researcher of renown every year.  The 2015 recipient was Magda Becker Soares, an educator at the School of Education of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).  Her award package included not only a certificate, medal, and R$200,000 but also a trip to the Amazon, where she boarded a Brazilian Navy hospital ship that serves people living along the river.  “I’m retired.  I won the prize more for what I’ve done than what I’m going to do.  Still, it had an impact on my life because I’d never been to the Amazon.  I came back from there feeling more Brazilian,” the professor reports.

While most science prizes in Brazil recognize successful careers, others are meant to reward beginning researchers.  This is true of the L’Oreal Prize for Women in Science, offered under a partnership between this French multinational, UNESCO, and the ABC.  The award spotlights the work of women in research and selects among projects rather than finished work.

“I received a phone call from Professor Jacob Palis, ABC president, telling me I’d won in the category Life Sciences.  I thought it was a prank,” says Alline Cristina de Campos, 33, professor at USP’s Ribeirão Preto School of Medicine and one of the recipients of the 2015 L’Oreal Prize.  Over the course of 2016, Campos will receive $20,000 in funds for a study on the use of cannabinoids like cannabis to treat anxiety and depression.  In December, another arm of the project will begin receiving FAPESP funding under the modality Young Investigators in Emerging Institutions.  “Although the prize is in my name, my whole team will benefit.  The money will be used for us to purchase equipment and resources and to fund the dissemination of our results at conferences in Brazil and abroad,” she says.