On Sunday, the winners of the 2016 Breakthrough Prizes were announced. A total of $25 million was awarded by tech billionaires to biologists, physicists, and mathematicians. Jean Bourgain, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, got the mathematics prize this year.
I wrote a post for the American Mathematical Society about the Breakthrough Prize in math in 2014, the first year it was awarded, and I wrote about the work of last year’s winner, Ian Agol, for Scientific American. The winners of the Breakthrough Prizes in math, including Bourgain, are hugely accomplished and admirable mathematicians. So I mean no disrespect to them when I say that giving them $3 million apiece seems like a pretty inefficient way to support mathematics.
Columbia professor Peter Woit, who writes the blog Not Even Wrong, wrote a post last night about the Breakthrough Prizes that says some of what I think about the prize’s utility for math.
I’ve never been convinced that this mathematics $3 million prize is a good idea, since it typically goes to someone like Bourgain who, besides being an essentially randomly chosen lucky winner from a sizable pool of similarly distinguished mathematicians, already has prize money and a very well paid position with minimal responsibilities. This isn’t going to help him do better mathematics. A much better way to spend the money would be on endowing new permanent academic positions in mathematics, allowing more talented young people to have a career in mathematical research.
When I wrote about the 2014 Breakthrough Prizes, I mentioned that $3 million a year could generously fund 30 postdoc years (or provide 10 3-year postdocs). I still think that wouldn’t be a terrible idea, especially as jobs in math are hard to come by for fresh PhD graduates. But as a commenter there pointed out, more postdoc funding could just postpone the inevitable. Tenure track jobs are hard to come by in mathematics, and without more of them, the job crunch will still exist. Helping to create permanent tenured or tenure-track positions in math would ease up on the job crisis in math and, ideally, make more space for the many deserving people who want to do math in academia.
I haven’t done extensive research on how much academic positions cost, but from going to the websites of a few major public universities, it looks like it’s around $2.5 million to permanently endow a chair at that kind of institution. So my proposal is that each year the Breakthrough Prize creates a new endowed chair in mathematics at a major public research university in addition to one or two 3-year postdocs for up-and-coming researchers, depending on how much money is left and how tied they are to the $3 million budget. I specify public rather than private universities mostly because of my idealism but also because it’s my impression that public universities have been harder-hit by budget cuts in recent years. My vision is that a different university gets the position each time to spread the wealth out as much as possible. There are plenty of excellent public research universities, so the prize could be awarded for many years without worrying about running out of worthy universities to fund. (How does the university get chosen? I don’t know, haven’t I come up with enough ideas for one day? It could go to a public university associated with the awardee, or we could just go with good, old-fashioned alphabetical order.)
I think that would be a great way to support math research. The only problem is that supporting math research isn’t actually the aim of the Breakthrough Prize. As Woit continues in his post,
The philosophy behind the Breakthrough Prizes, very visible in the glitzy award ceremony…is that scientists don’t get the kind of fame and stardom they deserve, so Milner and Zuckerberg are going to help fix this. What motivates good mathematics though is something very different, and bringing to mathematics more of the Hollywood star system is not going to improve mathematics research. In recent decades much of US society has moved to a brutal winner-take-all system. While our Silicon Valley overlords have flourished under this, I don’t think their bringing more of it to scientific research is a good idea.
Whether it’s desirable or not, the prize is not intended to encourage great research as much as to add some glitter and star appeal to math. But perhaps we could have it both ways: the committee selects an excellent and deserving mathematician just as they have been, but instead of getting a big check, they get an endowed chair named after them at a public research university. The Breakthrough Prize Foundation still throws a big glitzy party with Hollywood celebrities to pat everybody on the back. They get glitz, math research gets a new permanent job and all the benefits that entails.
What could possibly go wrong?
A few years ago Cathy O’Neil wrote a post about billionaire money in mathematics that always makes me pause when I think about wealthy individuals throwing money at math and science research. She points to a few potential drawbacks of having billionaires bankroll large amounts of research. For one, if it’s a response to a public funding shortage, it can keep the public funding from coming back. Additionally, it can influence what topics are studied—there’s something rather unsettling about knowing that an area of research exists or does not because of the personal preferences of a few wealthy individuals.
One concern I have about my proposal is along the lines of that first concern—it could merely rename a position that already exists rather than actually creating a new position. Perhaps there could be some strings attached saying that the department does have to use the money to create a genuinely new position and isn’t allowed to eliminate other positions for a certain number of years. (Of course, putting that many strings on a gift could be a slippery slope as well.)
As far as O’Neil’s second concern, though, I think my proposal manages to avoid the worst of the problem of undue billionaire influence on what math areas get funded. The math department where the new position exists would decide how to fill it the same way they decide how to fill any open position they have. That’s definitely not perfect, but it limits the ability of funders to directly influence which areas of research are funded.
My Breakthrough Prize proposal is a flight of fancy, but Breakthrough Prize Funders, if you’re interested in disrupting your own prize, feel free to get in touch. What about you, dear readers? If you had $3 million a year for math, how would you spend it?