The $33 million in prize money from the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation went to 11 deserving scientists. But it is worth debating whether, in an age of austerity, there are more efficient ways for the billionaire backers to put their money to work.

One line of thought holds that giving money to young researchers might be a better use of new funds than giving prize money to established researchers who already are well funded.

But at least two of the winners, as well as representatives from other philanthropies, think that essentially any form of large, long-term investigator award will give scientists more freedom than traditional grant-based research funding.

The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation was created by Art Levinson, Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg, Priscilla Chan and Yuri Milner (see "Founders and awardees"). Its stated goals are "advancing breakthrough research, celebrating scientists and generating excitement about the pursuit of science as a career," according to the foundation's website.

To achieve this, the foundation awarded $3 million to each of 11 researchers. The awardees together cover a broad range of research activities, but the primary focus underlying much of the work is cancer. Recipients were selected by the foundation's board, and next year's recipients-of which there will be five-will be selected by a committee made up of this year's winners.

The cash infusion clearly checks boxes two and three of the foundation's goals, but whether breakthrough research will follow is anyone's guess.

Three executives at research-supporting philanthropies say long-term awards to investigators of varying ages, rather than via prizes, are a good way to fund big ideas and drive innovation.

"We do not fund science through prizes. We find that our competitive investigator award schemes serve our goals and provide the flexibility and security that researchers need to tackle major scientific challenges," said Kevin Moses, director of science funding at the Wellcome Trust.

Wellcome provides annual funding of up to £425,000 ($640,000) to both new and senior investigators for up to 7 years.

In 2009, the organization announced it would stop offering project grants and instead offer the investigator awards. It has given 20 new investigator awards and 83 senior investigator awards at 27 different U.K. institutions and 1 overseas institution.

"To select candidates, we make an assessment of their potential and probability of doing significant science in the next-funded period, based on both their track record and their proposal," said Moses. "We depend on help from outside scientists and clinicians for advice."

Jack Dixon, VP and CSO of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, noted that young blood was absent from the first round of the $3 million prizes.

"The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation has selected an impressive group of people-terrific scientists-to give their awards to, but looking at the list, none of these individuals are beginners," he said. "Shinya Yamanaka has already won a Nobel Prize, and three of their awardees-Cornelia Bargmann, Charles Sawyers and Bert Vogelstein-are Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators."

HHMI supports about 330 independent researchers as investigators at institutions throughout the U.S. By appointing scientists as HHMI investigators, rather than awarding them traditional grants for specific research projects, the researchers receive flexible funding for five years.

About 80% of the HHMI investigators are reappointed following a review process. HHMI also provides 6 years of funding to an additional 45 early career scientists-individuals who are 2-5 years into their tenure-track career.

The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has been giving a growing portion of its awards to younger investigators. Of the 5 new Allen Distinguished Investigators awards announced last month, each ranging from $1.4 million to $1.6 million, none was given to a tenured professor.

"We are looking for the most innovative project proposals, and we're not biased against a researcher's CV, publication record or point in their career," said VP Sue Coliton. "We have already seen progress come out of our first cohort-including a spin-off company called Inscopix Inc. that came from a brain-imaging technology development from one of our investigators."

The NIH has also been setting aside money to fund outside-the-box thinkers. It offers the NIH Director's Pioneer Award, the NIH Director's New Innovator Award, the NIH Director's Transformative Research Award and the NIH Director's Early Independence Award.

"The Pioneer Awards have been around for about 10 years, so we can see the award provides a pretty clear opportunity for groundbreaking research," said NIH director Francis Collins. "We've had some exciting work come out of these awards but also some failures, which just goes to show that you can't have interesting success stories without taking on some risk."

Collins added, "One of the newly awarded Breakthrough Prize scientists-Titia de Lange-received one of our Pioneer Awards in 2005. It is encouraging to see that type of endorsement for a scientist and projects that are traditionally considered 'too risky'," he said.

The Pioneer Award provides scientists with up to $750,000 in research and indirect costs per year for 5 years.

"I think it's great that The Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences Foundation is providing such a large financial incentive to attract public attention and get young people interested in science," Collins said. "I am delighted that they are able to provide that type of recognition, because we at the NIH wouldn't be able to give an unrestricted personal prize of this magnitude with tax payers' money."

Prized fighters

Hans Clevers, a Breakthrough awardee who is professor of molecular genetics at the Hubrecht Institute and president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, thinks a key advantage of awards versus grants is operating freedom.

Clevers has received multiple prizes and awards. To name a few, he is a past recipient of the Dutch Spinoza Award-a Dutch equivalent of the Nobel Prize-which provides €2.5 million ($3.3 million) for research purposes; the Louis-Jeantet Prize, which provides €400,000 ($520,000) for research and €75,000 ($98,000) for personal use; and the Heineken Prize, which provides €150,000 ($200,000) for personal use.

"There is no timeline for when you need to use the money," he said. "I have felt secure in hiring people because I have money set aside to pay for salaries if fellowships don't come through. I could never do this with a traditional grant because at the end of the grant, the money has to be used or you lose it. Also, unlike grants, the money can be used for expensive equipment, such as two-photon microscopes or gene arrayers, that my laboratory students and postdocs are interested in trying-just to see if it might further their research."

Clevers also said that being free from the cycle of grant writing allows for more creative research. "The idea of exploration is what these types of awards foster. I have had about 30-40 manuscripts published in high-impact journals like Nature, Cell and Science," he said. "Those publications have all come out of work that I never had to write a grant for. My breakthrough papers have come from awards-like Spinoza or Louis-Jeantet-that allowed me the freedom to explore. My work from aim-based grant proposals typically does not make the high-impact journals."

Cornelia Bargmann, a Breakthrough awardee who is professor and laboratory head at The Rockefeller University and an HHMI investigator, agreed that freedom in research is what yields scientific advances. "I have had the huge privilege of being an HHMI investigator since 1995, and I understand how having that money provides you with the freedom to explore different aspects of your work," she said. "Rockefeller has also contributed to that freedom, showing me that my work is valuable by providing me with funding and my graduate students with salaries."

Traditionally, graduate student salaries are paid from grants received by their professor or from student fellowships that also are based on grant proposals.

"These types of awards are very important to provide support for basic research that seems to have no immediate or obvious payoff but in the long run contributes to medical breakthroughs," said Bargmann. "When there is a clear lead or target to go after or treat disease, that is where big pharmas can take the lead-and they are very good at that. It is what they do. But academic scientists, exploring basic research problems-they are going to provide the information as to where or what those leads or targets may be. It is what we do best."

Future funding

Ultimately, it will be up to the Breakthrough Prize's selection committee to determine which scientists and what type of basic research problems should receive dollars.

Yuri Milner's other big-money philanthropy-the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation-provides a good case study. In its inaugural year of 2012, the Foundation awarded 9 Fundamental Physics Prizes, each at $3 million.

This year, the foundation's selection committee chose five laureates to receive the Physics Frontiers Prize, which recognizes transformative advances in the field, and three laureates to receive the New Horizons in Physics Prizes, which target promising junior researchers.

The New Horizon awardees will receive $100,000. The Physics Frontiers Prize awardees will receive $300,000 and will become nominees for the Fundamental Physics Prize.

Baas, T. SciBX 6(9); doi:10.1038/scibx.2013.207 Published online March 7, 2013


Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation, no location provided

Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation, no location provided

Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Chevy Chase, Md.

Hubrecht Institute, Utrecht, the Netherlands

Inscopix Inc., Palo Alto, Calif.

National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md.

The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Seattle, Wash.

The Rockefeller University, New York, N.Y.

Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Wellcome Trust, London, U.K.