The image we have of scientists is that of some more or less pleasant types, dedicated body and soul to their work and who have a hard time making ends meet. That is if they are the good guys in the movie. If they are the bad guys, like the ones in the Marvel movies, they seem to have more financial resources than the 100 richest people in the world according to Forbes. But, of course, that’s normal: destroying the world is not something that comes cheap.
Still, the idea that a scientist is beyond economic trifles, that his passion for knowledge absorbs his whole being, is something most of us think about. In no case do we imagine a physicist who prefers an Aston Martin to go down in history as the creator of a revolutionary theory. And it may be so, but it’s not going to disgust James Bond’s car either.
Reality shows us that scientists tend to have as much taste for money as anyone else. If not, ask James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. Watson, who sold it in 2014, took out $4.1 million. Watson stated that he was selling it because his income had been significantly reduced by losing his position as director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and as a consultant to various biotech companies. Apparently, the Nobel laureate is unable to live on his salary as a university professor alone . But do you know what is the most striking thing about this whole thing? That the only people who have sold their Nobel medal in life have been… scientists.
And it is that some, especially those in the biomedical branch, have amassed considerable fortunes, either with their patents or through millionaire contracts with powerful companies. So much so that in 2007 about 40% of researchers at the National Institutes of Health were looking for another job to avoid the new ethical rules dictated by the leadership of this agency. These had nothing to do with moral dilemmas: they had simply been prohibited from advising biotech companies and, therefore, from earning a hefty bonus.
Do you want to be a millionaire?
Another way to become a millionaire is to win a prize. And not the Nobel but, for example, the one created in 2012 by four multi-millionaire couples from the world of the internet: the Breakthrough Prize . This award came to the Russian physicist and investor Yuri Milner, who managed to get these arch-rich each year to contribute 7 million dollars each to finance the award.
To define it in a few words, it is the prize that makes scientists millionaires: 3 million dollars per head. It is already money because the first year that the prize was awarded in life sciences, 2013, there were 11 winners; the same as in the previous year there had been in physics. What any research center would give to have $33 million rain down from the sky!
Of course, the Breakthroughs have their preferences . It must be said clearly: theoretical and particle physicists are the ones who take the prizes, while the poor geophysicists can sit and wait until one day the excellence of their work will be recognized with a shower of millions. In the case of life sciences, ecologists, evolutionary biologists, botanists, ornithologists, entomologists and other “bugs” can also be forgotten: unless you are a neuroscientist, molecular biologist or geneticist you have no choice.
One of the most controversial issues is that, in the end, they always end up rewarding the same: the winner of a Nobel is very likely to have won other prizes of lesser economic value before. In the end, everything ends up looking like a tournament to see who gets the most distinctions for their work. We have an example in the Indian string theory physicist Sirahz Minwalla, who at the age of 43 had won the New Horizons , both from his country and the International Center for Theoretical Physics award for young physicists and mathematicians from developing countries. developmental. In total, the not insignificant amount of about 180,000 euros in 4 years.
Money, money, money
Established researchers play in another league. For example, the Argentine physicist Juan Maldacena, one of the great popes of string theory, from 1998 until now has won 4.5 million dollars in prize money. In the case of life sciences things can get very appetizing : biochemist Jennifer Douda earned 3.8 million dollars in two years. The problem is that there are disciplines that are more millionaires than others: The French Xavier Le Pinchon, one of the creators of plate tectonics, the central theory of modern geophysics, has received throughout his career (and was born in 1937) $990,000. Theoretical physics makes you a millionaire; geophysics, no .
Among the most peculiar prizes that scientists can choose, and that in fact they have won on occasions, such as the theoretical physicist Paul Davies or the Spanish biologist Francisco José Ayala, is the Templeton, from the foundation that bears his name. Convened since 1972, it aims to entertain all those who contribute significantly to “affirming the spiritual dimension of life”. Of course, the prize itself is not very spiritual: 1.2 million pounds sterling (1.65 million euros), the second largest after the Breakthrough Prizes.
Faced with such a display of millions, very few dare to shoot against the waterline of the prizes. The few critics say that what is being achieved is to reinforce the obsolete idea that scientific development passes through solitary geniuses who have a brilliant idea. But the last of that type was Albert Einstein. Today science is the work of teams, not flashy figures . So when John Mather and George Smoot were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on background radiation from the Big Bang, they were not the only ones involved. They were actually the two main investigators of a team of almost twenty people. And it is that, in science, the boss is also the one who takes the medals .