Science prizes can be a catalyst for innovation

Raising the visibility of scientific breakthroughs with high-profile awards builds public trust and inspires the innovators of the future, says Richard Friend

May 6, 2023
A young boy does a science experiment
Source: iStock

The annual announcements of the Nobel Prize winners rightly make global news headlines in early October. Although I may know something about the areas of science recognised each year, I will be less familiar with the underlying stories about the pathways that the winners have taken, and these are inspiring and often unexpected. They are powerful reminders that nature still holds many secrets, even though science has come a long way.

The Nobel Prizes, and global prizes like it, can play an important role in shining an international spotlight on scientific excellence and creativity. This is more significant when these breakthroughs reveal new opportunities to tackle humanity’s greatest challenges, such as disease and climate change.

Recognition through awards is an important validation of the achievements of individuals and teams, but it also serves as an important mechanism for raising the visibility of scientific innovation beyond the scientific community, where the connection between discovery and impact isn’t always communicated or obvious.

An exception to this rule was perhaps the range of vaccine developments made in record time to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, which continue to be recognised through different prizes globally. The public profile of science during this time was increased to an unprecedented level as the world sought a path out of the pandemic.

Moreover, the widespread global media attention generated by these breakthroughs helped to strengthen the bonds between the public and scientific communities. A survey of more than 2,000 British adults by the Genetics Society earlier this year revealed that trust in science, particularly genetics, increased significantly during the pandemic. Such trust is crucial if we are to realise the real-world applications of discoveries, particularly where participation from the public may be required – such as in vaccine take-up.

Perhaps as important as publicising the specific breakthroughs themselves is the recognition that global science awards can deliver in energising, motivating and inspiring the innovators of the future. The prize money can also be used to ease financial tensions, whether they be personal or in the lab. Prize funds can be reinvested into research, enabling teams to take on additional or high-risk, high-return projects.

I’m part of the judging panel for the VinFuture Prize, a set of global prizes established in 2020 to reward scientific research and innovation that has brought about direct and global benefit to human well-being. Now open for nominations for its third year, the prizes include a $3 million (£2.6 million) Grand Prize and three special awards each of $500,000 that recognise emerging breakthroughs.

One of the distinctive features of the VinFuture prizes is that there is no restriction on the size of winning teams. This is important because many of the big breakthroughs that have made global impact comprise a number of different components, each very significant but more powerful when put together. This is represented in the awards we have made for the 2021 and 2022 Grand Prizes, for, respectively, significant contributions to the development of mRNA vaccination technology and for research on global network technology, for the latter of which, we honoured five people.

Global prizes such as the VinFuture Prize are also serving to highlight developments within emerging fields, such as reticular compounds (which bond molecules in 2D and 3D to make extended crystalline structures) and AlphaFold 2, an AI technology that models protein structures.

Another prize recognises innovation by researchers and teams within developing countries, who often aren’t afforded the same opportunities for exposure as other more prominent academic institutions. Last year, for instance, we honoured Thalappil Pradeep, a chemist at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, who developed a low-cost filtration system to remove arsenic and other heavy metals from groundwater.

Despite the impact that science and innovation breakthroughs continue to deliver, many of the innovations that will play a big role in meeting global challenges are yet to be developed. We must do everything we can to energise, motivate and inspire the future scientists and engineers who will create them. And science prizes have an important role to play in that.

Sir Richard Friend is a director of research in the department of physics at the University of Cambridge.

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