A Landmark Award for Young Scientists

A Landmark Award for Young Scientists

The Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists competition expands nationwide.

On June 3, the Blavatnik Family Foundation announced the nationwide launch of the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists, an extraordinary expansion of the program your New York Academy of Sciences has been administering for 7 years. The program has identified and supported some of the most brilliant and promising postdoctoral and faculty-rank scientists age 42 or younger in the Tri-State area (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut).

While the Foundation will continue to provide recognition (along with up to $30,000 in unrestricted funds) to Tri-State postdocs chosen by scores of renowned judges each year, the Foundation's Chairman, Academy Governor Len Blavatnik, will now offer an unprecedented $250,000 in unrestricted funds to three of the nation's most innovative young faculty-rank researchers—the largest unrestricted prize of its kind for young scientists and engineers.

This extraordinary opportunity comes at a propitious time: as traditional funding sources contract, it is increasingly difficult for young researchers to achieve the financial support necessary to establish independent laboratories—a critical developmental step that allows the brightest researchers to convert their early passion and novel thinking into ground-breaking discoveries.

But, it is also a time when some might feel overwhelmed by a seeming proliferation of prizes in the sciences. For that reason, I would like to focus this column on what makes Len Blavatnik's generosity uniquely valuable.

Many of us were thrilled last February to learn that 11 scientists we have all long admired had won $3 million each in honor of their extraordinary research accomplishments. The newly announced Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences was created by some of the wealthiest people on the planet—Yuri Milner, Sergei Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg—along with Genentech CEO Art Levinson and a few other Silicon Valley pioneers. The Breakthrough Prize's website says that it aims to provide recipients with "more freedom and opportunity to pursue even greater opportunity."

From my point of view, however, a perhaps greater contribution implicit in this award—and that of many other recent prizes—is the message it can send to young, brilliant, and impressionable children. Surely these prizes validate that science and technology are crucial to our planet and that the practitioners of science and engineering deserve to be celebrated.

However, I would be remiss if I didn't concede that there has been some criticism of this trend. Jack Stilgoe, a writer for Britain's The Guardian, published an article with a provocative title: "What's the Point of the Breakthrough Science Prize?" I recommend a thorough read of this piece, but I would like to touch on a couple of points made in the article briefly.

Stilgoe wrote, "...science, unlike, say, acting or writing novels, has recognition (as opposed to populism) built in. The ruthless meritocracy of peer review and citation means that the top scientists show up pretty clearly in the statistics. My guess is that the Breakthrough Prize will reinforce rather than challenge this model...." In addition, he wrote: "...clever people giving money to other clever people for being clever doesn't seem like philanthropy."

Len Blavatnik could not have addressed these worries more effectively. In November 2004, Len and his wife joined me and my wife at the Nobel Prize Ceremony and the social events surrounding it in Stockholm. Len was as impressed as any attendee I have ever met with the momentousness of the event. However, he expressed astonishment upon discovering that a high percentage of the winners were not merely already world famous, but that their research careers had effectively ended some years before receiving the Nobel.

Len's remark was: "We should be supporting young scientists when they need the support the most." As it turned out, Len's vision was completely in sync with that of the Academy staff and members of its Board of Governors.

Len tested his theory, with help from the Academy, for 7 years, by funding a prize that was not for world-renowned scientists but for the most promising young scientists—postdocs and young faculty—in the Tri-State area. Thanks to the truly amazing talent pool of our local institutions, the winners were inspiring. And again and again, he was told by the winners how much his support had meant to them, not merely because of the money, but also because of the critical endorsement it provided among their peers in the scientific community.

Indeed, past winners and finalists of the Blavatnik Awards have gone on to achieve significant career success, becoming department chairs and deans, HHMI Investigators, MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellows, and members of the National Academy of Sciences.

And now, as Len and the Academy spearhead a national expansion of the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists, Len's inspired idea has been endorsed by more than 50 of the nation's most renowned scientific researchers, Nobel laureates, and science editors, all of whom who have agreed to contribute their valuable time as Blavatnik Award Jurors or Science Advisory Council Members for the new national award program.

Looking back to that evening in Stockholm, Len Blavatnik's vision was on the money. It has never been clearer that faith in and support of the scientific enterprise is welcome—and needed—at all stages of scientific development.

Ellis Rubinstein
President & CEO