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Prizing High-Risk, High-Reward Research

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A top priority for science in the United States and around the world is the encouragement of high-risk, high-reward research, the kind that has the potential for transformational, rather than incremental, discoveries. In times of tight budgets, such research is typically under-funded and under-appreciated, because it can too easily be ridiculed for being outlandish or mistaken, although even wrong paths in science can be illuminating in profound ways.

It was good news, therefore, when a major new international prize in physics was announced on July 31. The Fundamental Physics Prize recognizes accomplishments in fundamental physics, including advances in closely related fields with deep connections to physics. It was created by Yuri Milner, who is, in the words of The New York Times, "a Russian physics student who dropped out of graduate school in 1989 and later earned billions investing in Internet companies like Facebook and Groupon."

The award, already inevitably referred to as "The Milner Prize," has nearly three times the financial value of a Nobel Prize. Its nine initial recipients each received $3 million, compared with the Nobel Prize's $1.2 million.

As The Economist reports:

Crucially, recipients earn the prize for inspired contributions that have not yet been experimentally verified, a tactic the Nobel Committee eschews. If these later prove beautiful but wrong, so be it. The idea, Mr Milner explains, is to afford the world's best brains the financial freedom to pursue their fundamental ideas wherever these take them. It may have the added benefit of keeping some imaginative physicists away from Wall Street.

The nine inaugural recipients and their achievements are Nima Arkani-Hamed, Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.; Alan Guth, Victor F. Weisskopf Professor of Physics at MIT; Alexei Kitaev, Professor of Theoretical Physics and Computer Science at Caltech; Maxim Kontsevich, Professor at the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies outside Paris; Andrei Linde, Professor of Physics at Stanford University; Juan Maldacena, Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J.; Nathan Seiberg, Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J.; Ashoke Sen, Distinguished Professor at the Harish-Chandra Research Institute in Allahabad, India; and Edward Witten, Charles Simonyi Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J.

It's particularly appropriate that the recipients of the first Fundamental Physics Prize were announced in the same month that physicists at CERN in Geneva revealed that they had found the Higgs boson. The Higgs is just the kind of bold transformational contribution to fundamental physics that the Prize will seek to highlight in the future. It was first predicted in 1964 by Peter Higgs, 48 years before his theory could be proven. Higgs is now widely expected, at the age of 83, to win the Nobel Prize -- with the elusive proof in hand.

Providing sufficient financial incentives and recognitions to dramatically elevate transformational science in multiple disciplines will, of course, require many more initiatives and additional funders at many levels, from government and higher education to industry and philanthropy. That's precisely why Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the foundation that I lead and the nation's oldest foundation devoted wholly to science, announced earlier this year the creation of the John P. Schaefer Award, in honor of the foundation's former president. The Schaefer Award will recognize high-risk, high-reward research and will be presented bi-annually to the originators of discoveries judged most likely to lead to major breakthroughs in science and technology. The Award will be jointly endowed by Research Corporation for Science Advancement and the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Foundation, an affiliate of Research Corporation Technologies.

Science holds enormous potential for transformational discoveries that will improve the world. The challenge is to continue to elevate science -- and high-risk, high-reward research in particular -- by aligning financial incentives and prominent recognitions to reinforce and sustain it. Yuri Milner and the Fundamental Physics Prize have taken a major step in that direction. Other funders of scientific research should do whatever they can to ensure that transformational, as opposed to incremental, research is most highly prized.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (www.rescorp.org), which celebrates its Centennial -- 100 years of science advancement -- this year.