If I had a billion dollars…

In an apparently recurring theme, my thoughts again are running to the incentives that drive human behavior, this time inspired by the recent news that the Russian billionaire Yuri Milner has established a new $3 Million Fundamental Physics Prize.  He’s actually awarded 9 of these prizes for a cool $27M promoting the efforts of theoretical physics.  Certainly that kind of money and publicity could drive a lot of attention to the field, and I love the fact that we now almost have a basketball team’s worth of physicists who almost make a basketball player’s salary.

However, is this the best way to spend $27M to shake up and rally support for science?  Of course Mr. Milner is free to spend his money any way he wishes but I see some potential problems with his approach.  Quoting from the NY times article referenced above “Mr. Milner personally selected the inaugural group, but future recipients of the Fundamental Physics Prize, to be awarded annually, will be decided by previous winners.”  I don’t know how well a Russian billionaire can select the best work in theoretical physics, but let’s assume he did his due diligence as well as the experts in Stolckholm.  Past the first year the process turns into a bunch of self-anointed experts picking their own colleagues.  Nothing particularly wrong with this, but not that much different than the Nobel Prize.

The other fact in the article that really caught my attention was the condition that theoretical predictions don’t need experimental evidence to be considered breakthroughs.  No sitting around for decades waiting for messy difficult to acquire data to roll in here, this prize gets straight to rewarding breakthough ideas.  According to Milner “This intellectual quest to understand the universe really defines us as human beings,”. What could be wrong here?

Well, I’m reminded of the quote by Thomas Huxley which was posted on my thesis adviser’s door: “The great tragedy of Science — the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”  I think the lack of a requirement for experimental validation for the Fundamental Physics Prize shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what science is.  Science is not philosophy.  It is based in a belief that there is in fact a real world which behaves a certain way, and that the way to uncover the way this universe works is though empirical evidence, not the scientist’s opinion of the beauty of the theory explaining it.

But maybe I’m just a cranky science dropout.  Let’s check the news post again “Dr. Arkani-Hamed, for example, has worked on theories about the origin of the Higgs boson… None of his theories have been proved yet. He said several were ‘under strain’ because of the new data.”… Wow.  Tough break.  Even in the short interval between when these winners were decided and when they were announced, one of the winner’s ideas is “under strain”, or in layman’s terms “wrong”.

I don’t have the billion dollars to fund a competitor to the Nobel, but I do have the $18 it took to acquire the sciencereengineered domain, and in this world I am the boss.  So, here’s my proposal for a Nobel alternative:

First of all, I’m not going after the Physics prize.  I’m targeting the one for Physiology and Medicine.  But I’m not giving the power to award it to a group of experts, I’m going to let patients vote on it.  My guess is that unproven theoretical ideas decades away from experimental validation won’t make the top spots.  Instead, the award will go to the projects that have the biggest impact on people’s lives.  Doing this in practice might be difficult so maybe I’d pick a different disease every year and go to that patient community to get a more involved and knowledgeable subset of voters.  To make sure the voters are knowledgeable, part of the process of awarding the prize will be having the candidate projects present their work to the lay audience.  I’d build some sort of online environment for the projects to build presentations of their work, and for patients and scientists to discuss over the course of several months before the vote.  Of course, the data, code, and other materials used to comprise the project have to be open and available to those who want to validate the work.

Secondly, I’m not giving the award to individuals.  This propagates the false belief that science advances due the unique and rare break-through insights of a small group of geniuses (see On the Shoulders of Giants).  Instead the award goes to projects, and is shared by every member of the project team equally.  Say a flat prize of $100,000 per team member…. I want to give the winners enough to be a noticeable Thank-You but not be so large that they retire!  However, unlike the Nobel, I have no limit on the number of people on the team.  It doesn’t matter if you’re the PI, the lab rat doing the pipetting, the data analyst, or the marketing guy putting together the project description for the lay audience.  The award goes to the whole team, identified in alphabetical order.  For $27M that means that the winning team size could hit 270 people.  That’s big, but if you’ve seen some of the massive author lists on 4 page journal articles it’s not that far off the mark for modern science.

So, that’s a first pass at the Kellen prize in Physiology or Medicine.  Of course, if there’s one thing that’s clear from studies of human behavior, it’s that incentive structures often motivate people in ways unintended by those who create the incentives.  So, I reserve the right to modify the rules of the prize based on empirical evidence acquired as the prizes unfold.  After all, that’s what being a scientist means.

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About Michael Kellen

I've spent my career working at the intersection of science and technology. Currently I lead the technology team at Sage Bionetworks, but this blog contains my own thoughts.
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One Response to If I had a billion dollars…

  1. sagesynapsenews says:

    Reblogged this on Sage Synapse and commented:
    Guest post from Michael Kellen on incentives and competitions

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