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Kavli prizes step up to the Nobels

May 4, 2005 By Nicola Jones This article courtesy of Nature News.

Million-dollar awards are set up for nanotechnology, neuroscience and astrophysics.

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The pot of cash for science prizes has just got bigger. In an attempt to widen the fields covered by the classic Nobel prizes, philanthropist Fred Kavli has created three million-dollar prizes in nanotechnology, neuroscience and astrophysics.

The prizes were formally announced by Kristin Clemet, the Norwegian education minister, on Tuesday 4 May. They will be awarded every two years, starting in 2008.

Norwegian-born Kavli, who made his fortune in California with a company that specialized in making sensors for aircraft, says he wants to reward scientific breakthroughs.

Kavli says he hopes his prizes will be more responsive to current research than the Swedish Nobels. "I think we'll be more daring," he says. Nobel prizes, awarded in physics, chemistry, medicine, economics, literature and peace, are often bestowed years or even decades after the events that merited them.

Filling gaps

Mathematics is one of the subjects famously omitted from the Nobels; perhaps, it has been supposed, because Alfred Nobel didn't see much practical application for the field on its own. But there are many others that escaped the Nobel remit too.

Hefty prizes have been established over the years in an attempt to make up for this. For scientists aiming to gain reward and recognition for their efforts, there is now a bewildering array of such awards to shoot for.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which selects the winners of the physics and chemistry Nobels, hands out smaller prizes for exceptional research in a somewhat random assortment of fields, including Gregory Aminoff's prize in crystallography and the Crafoods' prize for polyarthritis research. A significant enough advance in arthritis can earn a researcher US$500,000.

Perhaps some of the most prestigious awards in mathematics, although not necessarily the most lucrative, are Canada's Fields Medal, which is often equated to a Nobel and comes with a $12,000 cheque, and the Clay Millennium Problems. The Clay problems comprise seven of the most taxing brain-teasers ever committed to paper, and each carries a $1-million bounty. The judges have not yet been convinced to part with any of the prizes.

The 'genius awards', more properly known as the Macarthur fellowships, are awarded to a couple of dozen lucky recipients each year. The fellows are a batch of "exceptionally talented individuals who have given evidence of originality, dedication to creative pursuits and capacity for self-direction", and each is given a share of $500,000 in the form of five yearly instalments, to spend on whatever research they wish.

Wacky races

There will always be the awards that gain ample press thanks to their wild or wacky remits, which capture the imagination. There was the $10-million X Prize for sending humans into space on the back of private funding. That was snapped up last October by SpaceShipOne, a project funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

And there is the Methuselah Mouse Prize, offered by the Methuselah Foundation, which offers a portion of its million-dollar-plus pot to those who can keep a mouse alive past the current record. The benchmark was set by the oddly-named mouse GHR-KO 11C, which lived almost five years (the equivalent of a 190-year-old human) before dying in early 2003.

Last, but not least, there are the IgNobel awards. These come with little cash, but much cachet, and reward those research projects that "first make people laugh, and then make them think". Last year's esteemed winners included a study of "The effect of country music on suicide" and "Coordination modes in the multisegmental dynamics of hula-hooping".

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