Are major science prizes a form of philanthropy?

The Association for the Advancement of AI conferred its ‘Squirrel AI Award’ on Cynthia Rudin, and Duke University – her employer – published a press release celebrating it. Here’s one para from the release:

“Only world-renowned recognitions, such as the Nobel Prize and the A.M. Turing Award from the Association of Computing Machinery, carry monetary rewards at the million-dollar level,” said AAAI awards committee chair and past president Yolanda Gil.

The press release also had a curious headline:

Duke Computer Scientist Wins $1 Million Artificial Intelligence Prize, A ‘New Nobel’

  1. If a prize carries a million-dollar purse, is it like the Nobel Prize? Follow-up: Being compared favourably to the Nobel Prize is one thing, but aren’t the ‘Squirrel AI Award’ folks offended that the virtues of their award aren’t being considered in their own right?
  2. If the prize money is so important, why did the Duke University release’s headline not say “A New Templeton”? (The Templeton Prize is awarded to work that harnesses “the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.” Pertinently, the prize money was first set to be greater than the Nobel Prizes’ purse in order to grab the world’s attention. See Q. 6.)
  3. Does a prize have to be ‘like’ the Nobel Prize to be taken seriously?
  4. What is the greater cause célèbre – the prize or the work that wins it? (Ref. 1: Cynthia Rudin in the press release: “I want to thank AAAI and Squirrel AI for creating this award that I know will be a game-changer for the field. To have a ‘Nobel Prize’ for AI to help society makes it finally clear without a doubt that this topic – AI work for the benefit for society – is actually important.” Ref. 2: Piers Forster in The Conversation: “With a Nobel prize in physics under our discipline’s belt, it gives me and climate modelling colleagues the credibility and recognition we have yearned for: climate science is real science.”)
  5. Does a recognition need to have a million-dollar purse to be “world-renowned”? Follow-up: What does that say about what the world’s people in general consider to be ‘renown’?
  6. Does Yolanda Gil, the “awards committee chair”, expect the award to be Nobel-esque and/or renowned simply because her employers have attached a million-dollar purse to it? Follow-up: Does this mean the award has nothing else going for it?
  7. While university press releases are infamous for their hype, Duke University and AAAI appear to be colluding here to hype up the prize. Is this ethical from a public communication point of view?
  8. As I’ve written about the Infosys Prize, what is the point of giving a million dollars to one scientist who is already succeeding at their work? Follow-up: As with the Infosys Prize, is giving already-successful scientists a lot of money the conventional way to make the prize more prominent?

(One simple and entirely non-drastic solution to many of these problems is to decouple the prize-money from the prize itself: give deserving laureates medals and certificates, and split and distribute the money less according to achievement and more according to potential for achievement.)

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Awards as philanthropy?

Bill Gates & co. have made a name for themselves through philanthropy, more precisely philanthrocapitalism. On October 9, Julieta Caldas wrote for Tribune magazine that philanthropists’ “brand of social justice … follows only the imperative for ruthless innovation,” that they “refer to the act of philanthropy using the euphemistic term ‘giving’, which both obviates the need to concretely mention money and stresses the generosity of donors,” that “the philanthropic system depends upon [the poor] remaining splintered and isolated as subjects” and “represents, at best, a capitalism generously willing to help alleviate the problems it causes,” and that “their justifications are cloaked in the language of collaboration and listening, but their guiding principles are nakedly technocratic”. She concludes in the headline itself that “philanthropy is a scam”. Now, with regard to the last question in the list above: are big-purse prizes a form of philanthropy?

Unlike billionaires and/or their estates/foundations, it is hard – if not impossible – to accuse the Nobel Prizes, the Infosys Prizes, the Breakthrough Prizes, the Templeton Prize or any others like them of furthering a technocratic agenda by giving away their money to scientists working in this or that field. In fact, they may not have any agenda at all except to abide by the broad terms of the prizes themselves – or so it would seem.

For example, the Nobel Prizes require their laureates’ work to have proved itself, so to speak, in some way in the real world, to have been of benefit of society. Here, society’s composition, needs and aspirations matter because they determine what scientific work is valourised, adopted, allowed to scale and ultimately become profitable (not just in terms of money, although that has often been a necessary condition). The Nobel Prizes are not outside society, much less beyond it, as its prize-giving body seems to believe: contrary to popular belief, they don’t have to be any kind of watermark on scientific achievement.

In this context, awarding a million dollars to the recipients, whose work has by definition matured in terms of its application and appreciation to a great degree, glamourises their particular fields of study as well as lines of work and inquiry. And just as philanthropy of the Bill Gates variety perpetuates wealth inequality and preserves the socio-economic status quo, showering money on work that has already proven itself may widen a respectability inequality in the sciences.

Of course, most – if not all – scientists who go on to win Nobel Prizes didn’t start their careers or their eventually award-winning work thinking they would win the prizes, ergo not pursuing one question over another based on the probability of a future laureateship. But on the flip side, scientific work until the 1980s or 1990s is not what it is now. There is an important truth to memes about how Peter Higgs or Albert Einstein may not have been able to produce their greatest work today because they wouldn’t have had jobs or brought in a large number of grants; both these tasks have become astoundingly more competitive today, accompanied by concomitantly less secure, more fluid terms of employment. As a result, the appetite for more exploratory and potentially riskier lines of inquiry are unlikely to be funded or supported beyond the best-funded research institutes.

There is already some evidence that if the exponent of one topic wins a prominent prize, other scientists working on the same topic tend to become more productive over the subsequent decade.

Our longitudinal analysis of nearly all recognized prizes worldwide and over 11,000 scientific topics from 19 disciplines indicates that topics associated with a scientific prize experience extraordinary growth in productivity, impact, and new entrants. Relative to matched non-prizewinning topics, prizewinning topics produce 40% more papers and 33% more citations, retain 55% more scientists, and gain 37 and 47% more new entrants and star scientists, respectively, in the first five-to-ten years after the prize. Funding do not account for a prizewinning topic’s growth. Rather, growth is positively related to the degree to which the prize is discipline-specific, conferred for recent research, or has prize money.

Brian Uzzi et al., ‘Scientific prizes and the extraordinary growth of scientific topics’, Nature Communications

This is just tremendous. The next time anyone from a Nobel Prize Committee blames society for preventing women from winning its exalted honours, someone tell them that whom they award their prizes to may just be influencing that field’s success, in turn influencing the scientific output and knowledge that is available for any society to make use of. But more importantly (for this post), it doesn’t seem to me to be hard to imagine that Big Prizes have an impact on society that is quite similar to the impact that philanthrocapitalism has on society: to extend the lifetime of what has already sunk deep roots, even if the resources it continues to demand are more in need elsewhere.

Science prizes, wealth location and social signals

One count on which I almost always find myself to be an outlier in India is my opinion that the Nobel Prizes and their derivatives belong in the gutter. But while many people in other countries share this opinion of the Nobel Prizes, and often put their weight behind advancing this view, there are very few people who focus on similar issues with Indian prizes.

For example, I just sent my colleagues at The Wire a note suggesting that we desist where and when possible to play up notions like eminence, vis-à-vis scientists, and not associate anything but the quality of one’s work with their success. My concern had been prompted by a PTI copy advertising the fact that scientists, “including from MIT, Stanford University and Harvard University in the US”, had been awarded the 2020 Infosys Prizes.

My congratulations to the laureates for doing good work, irrespective of what they’ve won for it – but let’s consider what we’re celebrating here, really. We’re talking about a jury of well-known scholars coming together to consider a list of 200+ nominations and somehow picking only a half-dozen ‘winners’, and to those winners awarding a pure gold medal, a certificate and $100,000, or around Rs 74 lakh.

Most mediapersons pay attention to the Infosys Prizes because of the substantial purse, and when we do pay attention, what are we looking at? We’re looking at a lot of money going to a group of people who already have a good job and access to funds, especially in the name of a job well done that quite likely happened in the first place by virtue of having a good job and access to funds. The Infosys Prizes are in effect heaping more privilege on already privileged scientists.

Consider this year’s laureates, for example. Three of them – Hari Balakrishnan, Sourav Chatterjee and Raj Chetty – have full-time jobs at three of the world’s most well-endowed universities. Rajan Sankaranarayanan is a chief scientist at CCMB Hyderabad and runs his own lab. The sole female laureate this year, historian Prachi Deshpande, is at CSSS Kolkata and used to teach at the University of California, Berkeley. Arindam Ghosh is an associate professor at IISc Bangalore, again with his own lab. I can’t comment on the relative fortunes of Sankaranarayanan, Deshpande and Ghosh (although at least one other person from CCMB and six others from IISc have won Infosys Prizes, speaking to the localisation of resources and opportunities). But these are all scholars who have, as some might say, settled – scholars who have been able to sidestep or surmount, as the case may be, the numerous barriers to finding success and renown as an Indian scientist.

The case of Balakrishnan seems particularly curious (vis-à-vis the prize-giving entity, not Balakrishnan or any of the other laureates): he is a chair professor at MIT and the CTO at a six-person startup with $500 million in funding.

As an offshoot of what I said earlier, it is not unjust to reward people who have done good work – but too often we do so to the exclusion of those who lack the opportunities to begin doing good work in the first place. For example, instead of Balakrishnan, Chatterjee and Chetty, the prizes could have been awarded to three accomplished scientists working in India. And I argue that we need to reapply this criterion and select even other laureates who are yet to settle, so that we may ultimately expand the possibility of there being more successful scientists in future. Ultimately, we do need more successful scientists, not more laureates.

Of course, it isn’t implicitly wrong for any individual or entity to gift a large sum of money to anyone or any other entity (but perhaps it is bad in some cases). The wrongness arises when the money becomes part of a deleterious idea – such as that excellent scientists are men and/or that they succeeded by working alone. Thanks to their reputation, the Nobel Prizes are the foremost examples of this problem. As I wrote in The Wire recently:

That the prizes’ prestige is a construct, and not an innate attribute, matters because constructs represent intent. The construct of prestige or reputation surrounding the Nobel Prizes exists by reinforcing the beliefs and myths that some experts (in the relevant topics) held in order to maintain their privileges, to secrete away their power and perpetuate the status quo. That is, their intention here was to preserve the idea, and even glamourise it by attaching a purse of SEK 10 million (Rs 8.24 crore) with each Nobel Prize (no strings attached), that individuals make inventions and discoveries, and that men were always better at science than women, and more so than people of other genders.

The Infosys Prizes, as also the S.S. Bhatnagar Prize and the Swarnajayanti Fellowships in India, are different only in scale, not in spirit. They seem disinterested in addressing any of the issues, and seem keener on getting media attention. (By making this point, I hope I’m being clear that the media’s attitude towards the constitution of ‘news’ is also part of the problem.)

This year’s Infosys Prize laureates include only one woman; in all, 22% of laureates are women, fewer still if the social sciences are left out. And the prizes have only ever been awarded to individuals. This is disappointing because the prizes can do so much more by virtue, again, of the amount of money in play.

For example, the prize-giving foundation could give ‘senior’ laureates a citation, a certificate, etc., and split the purse into smaller chunks and award each one to promising young scientists, or those who are likely to have a hard time breaching science’s ‘in’ groups without good fortune. This could help separate the prizes’ extant wealth- and virtue-signalling from the distinction-signalling – as well as greatly expand some of the foundation’s other initiatives that directly help students.

I recently wrote with regard to the announcement of this year’s Swarnajayanti Fellowships, in mid-November, that resource constraints encourage us to think that only a few people can be selected for an award every time that award is given out. This in turn leads to the question about which candidates should be left out from the final pool of winners. And this question is to begin with singly misguided, becoming doubly misguided when it is used as a defence against questions about why so few women are awarded important recognitions, and triply misguided when the resource constraints are made-up, a fiction of funders and administrators to retain power.

Instead, we must demand more material wealth and supply it at the springboards of where young and/or struggling scientists take off. These scientists plus some other groups (incl. those from marginalised sections of society, those who need to learn the English language, even those who promise to stay in India for a decade, etc.) are in my view the only ‘segments’ that have justifiable need for not-insubstantial sums of money. Beyond this point, we can be generous with immaterial rewards for those who do good work and may no longer need the money.