Two Boston-area scientists win $3 million prizes

The Nobel Prizes have more history behind them, but a new generation of life science prizes awarded Wednesday to two local scientists has a bigger payday: at $3 million per prize, more than twice the money.

The brand new Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, sponsored by a small cadre of technology’s elite, were given to 11 scientists on Wednesday. Among those honored and enriched were two scientists who have long co-taught an introductory biology class together at MIT: Eric S. Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute and a key player in the Human Genome Project, and Robert Weinberg, a cancer biologist from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, an MIT-affiliated research institution.

Weinberg, who is best known for discovering the first cancer-causing gene in humans, said when he first got a phone call from the chairman of the board of the prize foundation, Arthur Levinson, he didn’t believe it.

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“I thought it a joke—after all how often do you get a call from someone who says that you’re going to receive three Big Ones??” Weinberg wrote in an e-mail.

Yuri Milner, a Russian entrepreneur who is one of the sponsors of the new prize, created a stir in the world of big league science awards last summer when he created the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation and handed out $3 million prizes to nine surprised physicists. Alan Guth, an MIT physicist who received the award, told the New York Times that his bank account balance suddenly and dramatically increased, from $200 to $3,000,200.

Now, Milner has banded together with a group of Silicon Valley leaders to launch the life sciences award, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, and 23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki.

“I believe this new prize will shine a light on the extraordinary achievements of the outstanding minds in the life sciences, enhance medical innovation, and ultimately become a platform for recognizing future discoveries,” Levinson, the chairman of the prize foundation, said in a statement.

Lander said in an e-mail that he doesn’t know what exactly to do with the money, but that he will take seriously a charge laid out in the prize letter from Milner, exhorting winners to communicate their work to the general public.

Lander is about to teach a free online introductory biology class, and is partnering with major teaching organizations to find ways to adapt the material and make it useful in high school classrooms. He plans to use some of the funds to support that effort, helping turn an experiment in virtual college education to a tangible improvement in the real-life classroom experience of students taking math and science classes across the country.

Each of the 11 scientists were awarded $3 million. Going forward, the prize foundation has committed to awarding five $3 million prizes each year.