Recipients of the newly established Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences were said to have been ‘floored’, not just by the award, but also by the sum of money involved. At US$3 million per laureate, the prize dwarfs the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine — which in 2012 totalled 8 million Swedish Krona, or $1.2 million — especially given that that is often shared between two or three individuals. The objective of the Breakthrough Prize, according to its website, is “to recognize excellence in research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life”; however, the web page also says that the prizes are given for “accomplishments in life sciences broadly defined”.
By the first criterion, the list of laureates is fair enough. The 11 recipients, all scientists in the front rank, work in the biomedical sciences, and the word ‘cancer’ appears in the citations for seven of them. The second criterion is more problematic. Any reading of the life sciences as ‘broadly defined’ must extend beyond (valuable and necessary) research into cures for diseases that mainly affect people in wealthy nations. There is no mention in any of the awards of malaria, schistosomiasis, cholera or malnutrition.
Taking an even broader view, the narrow scope of the prizes awarded excludes any discipline that considers the attributes of living organisms in general. Genetics gets a look in (knowledge of genetics illuminates disease states) but there is little recognition of developmental biology or neurobiology, and nothing at all on evolution, ecology, parasitology, demography, biomechanics, microbiology, environmental science, zoology, botany, conservation biology, systematics, taxonomy, palaeontology, geobiology or even astrobiology.
The apparent blind spot of the prize-givers towards these fields has been criticized in the wake of the awards, often by people in those very fields. But there is more to this than an academic turf war and sour grapes. In recent decades, the life sciences have split into two camps that can be summarized as the biology of cells and the biology of organisms. Perhaps because of their closeness to medicine, cell biologists have assumed the ascendant, and attract most funding. This has led to a perception — at least among those who study whole organisms — that cell biologists regard their own discipline not only as important (which it is) but as the only kind of biology that matters (which it is not).
Solutions to many of the world’s problems will demand intensive research in many disciplines that are too-often excluded from even broad definitions of the life sciences. Efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change will require a detailed inventory of the world’s species (biodiversity, zoology, botany, taxonomy, microbiology, marine biology and so on) and their interactions with one another (ecology) and the environment.
Research into many of these areas is undertaken in museums. At the time the Breakthrough Prize was announced, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, was facing tough decisions over a major shortfall in income. It is in the process of disbanding its separate research departments, reducing both the museum’s capacity for research into biodiversity and its high quality of educational outreach — crucial in a nation in which the very idea of evolution is perpetually under threat.
Further cuts will be necessary; the museum announced in December that it will have to slash $3 million from its research budgets (see Nature http://doi.org/j6q; 2012): an amount, coincidentally, that is equivalent to just one Breakthrough Prize, given to just one researcher in life sciences as defined by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation. It is a laudable aim to work for ways to prolong lives, even those that are already long and luxurious. To work for a world that can harbour billions of human beings in tolerable comfort is also worthy of recognition.
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