Eyes on the prize?
November 21, 2011
High profile prizes for science and engineering have been making the headlines recently. Last week the Royal Academy of Engineering announced a new international prize for excellence in engineering, the Queen Elizabeth prize. Worth a million pounds to the winner, the ambition is to make this the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for engineering. Like the Nobel, this prize has a broad scope and contrasts with prizes focussed on addressing specific challenges. The idea of awarding prizes for advances in science and engineering has an illustrious history, and there is good evidence that prizes can act as strong incentives for innovation (Tim Harford‘s recent book, Adapt, covers this point in detail).
It is also claimed that prizes like this inspire young people, but I am not convinced. The problem is that these big international prizes are so rare that they tend to encourage the view that only a tiny minority of researchers can reach the peak of their profession. This is just not a fair reflection of the process of research, where most researchers make contributions to the advancement of knowledge. Indeed many of the advances celebrated by high profile prizes depend upon advances made by researchers who are not awarded the prize.
But I also think there is a problem with visibility and engagement. While there may be a brief news item when the prize is announced, there is limited opportunity to engage people with the science, the scientists or the prize process itself. I am always struck by the contrast between these science and research prizes, and the coverage of other prizes, like the Turner prize, the Man Booker Prize and even the Stirling Prize. In these cases there is intense media attention, and often vigorous public debates. For example, this year’s Man Booker triggered discussions about the nature of quality literature; is readability and accessibility necessary, sufficient, or perhaps even antagonistic to, literary merit? And of course the Turner prize often leads to discussions about the nature of art. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a science prize could stimulate a similar debate about how science progresses, or on the details and relevance of particular scientific findings?
So how could a science prize generate the media buzz associated with the Turner or the Man Booker? One of the key characteristics of these prizes is that, at least partially, the judging is carried out in the public domain. A short-list is constructed and published in advance. So while the judges carry out their private deliberations, there is the opportunity for the media and the public to form and talk about their own judgements. These public verdicts don’t directly impact on the award of the prize itself, but they raise the profile and encourage active engagement with the content. I can imagine this working perfectly well for a science prize – a shortlist, perhaps a series of TV documentaries on each candidate, and then a big announcement. A potential audience of millions engaged with and inspired by leading-edge research, now that is a prize worth aiming for.