A Breakthrough Donation for Computer Science

Lance Fortnow has a post summarizing some of the news affecting the CS community over the past month, including updates on various prizes as well as the significant media attention focusing on physics- and math-related topics such as movies about Turing and Hawking as well as Terrence Tao on the Colbert Report.

From his post, I just learned that former Microsoft chief executive Steven Ballmer is making a donation to Harvard that will endow twelve—that’s right, 12—new tenured and tenure-track faculty positions in computer science. This is fantastic news and will have a huge positive impact on Harvard CS.

One thing missing from Lance’s list was news about the Breakthrough Prizes in mathematics and fundamental physics. In case you’ve been living under a rock, these prizes give a very hefty US $3 million purse to the chosen recipients. The winners are all luminaries in their field, and it’s great to see them get recognition for their outstanding work.

On the other hand, juxtaposing Ballmer’s donation and the Breakthrough Prizes couldn’t offer a starker contrast. It costs the same amount—$3 million—to endow a university full professor with appointments in more than one discipline at Duke University. My initial googling would suggest that this is a pretty typical figure at top-tier institutions.

What if, instead of a offering a cash prize to the Breakthrough Prize winners, the reward was an upgrade to an endowed chair at the current institution subject to the condition that the existing position would go to a new tenured or tenure-track hire in the same field? This seems to be a much better investment in science overall because it will help build a community of researchers around the prize winner, and the marginal benefit to this community from associating with the prize winner is likely far greater than any extra incentive the researchers might get within the current system to simply strive to win $3M cash.

5 Replies to “A Breakthrough Donation for Computer Science”

    1. I wouldn’t say it’s quite a waste. I would rather see that $3M in Kitaev’s bank account than gathering interest for some billionaire. But it’s really far from an optimal investment if the goal is to boost fundamental science.

  1. I also completely agree. As well as the moral issue of prizes like the Breakthrough Prize being given to researchers who are very successful already, and who don’t need the money, I just don’t see such prizes as very effective in their stated goal of promoting science or mathematics. Beyond one or two famous prizes like the Nobel and the Fields Medal, could any members of the general public name any of the winners of these prizes? Even the Abel Prize, which has been going for over a decade now, seems not to have achieved much “brand recognition”. I feel that Andrew Wiles or Yitang Zhang (for example) have done far more to promote mathematics than any of these prizes has achieved, and at far less cost. A cynic might counter that, for a multimillionaire donor, it’s harder to get your name associated with Fermat’s Last Theorem than it is with a new prize…

  2. The stated aim of the breakthrough prizes is to give Physics, Math, etc., the same type of glitz, star-like appeal that e.g. the movie or fashion industries may have. This explains not only the large sum of money, but also the ceremony, the type of communication made around the prize, etc. If you were to commute the prize to an endowed chair it would definitely have much less ex-appeal.
    I’m not trying to defend or justify the prize, but there is some sense to it. I think we all agree that whatever the reward, the scientist will not actively seek any such prize — be it Nobel, Turing, Fields, breakthrough or whatnot; the odds against it are simply way too low compared to the reward, however much money it may consist in. I think it is true that the ones who *are* attracted to a glitzy prize such as the Nobel are people from the general public, who watch the ceremony and are impressed by the achievements of these brilliant people.
    In that respect the way the breakthrough prize is administered makes some sense. If you want to endow a chair with your money, this is great, do it; you don’t even need to associate it with a particularly successful scientist or discovery. But if your goal is to promote science, in the sense of making it attractive to young people, making it visible, then a flashy ceremony and a large amount of cash are one way to do it.
    So I fully agree we could easily find much better ways to spend such amounts of money and promote science. But the prize is not completely ridiculous either, once you realize it is not meant to directly promote or encourage the recipient, but rather science as a whole (and in the limited respect described above).

    1. If the goal is solely to “promote” science, then I agree that it will help with that goal. Two natural questions then arise: does science need this kind of promotion? And is this the most cost-effective way to promote it?
      I think that the kind of promotion that science needs (or more correctly, would benefit from) is only weakly correlated with the kind of promotion that these prizes offer, and there are likely much more effective ways to accomplish that. I wonder to what extent the prize founders have really crunched the numbers of what their prize is trying to accomplish? Bill and Melinda Gates have famously tried very hard to create a rank-ordered list of “positive impact on public health” per dollar, in particular in defining a sensible metric for the numerator. It seems like the Breakthrough Prize founders haven’t spent much time at all thinking about the analogous best way to effect a “positive impact on science”.

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