Science prize gives old age weary seal of approval

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 May, 2004, 12:00am

The Nobel Prize of the East? Sorry, I don't mean to be negative about the Shaw Prize, whose first six winners were announced this week. But organisers of the new science and maths prize, paid for by entertainment mogul Sir Run Run Shaw, seem bent on aping the august prize from Stockholm.

Like the Nobel, it's worth US$1 million. Like the Nobel, all its awards have gone to established scientists whose respectability is beyond reproach. And age, of course, confers respectability in its own right in Chinese tradition.

The average age of the six Shaw Prize winners is 76.5. They are either retired or well past their active research days. This is a prize that says its express purpose is to promote science and the pursuit of knowledge.

Two winners, Chern Shiing-shen and Richard Doll, are 93 and 91 years old. The youngest, Hong Kong-born medical researcher Kan Yuet-wai, is 68.

In other words, the money and recognition go to people who don't need them. Aren't the Nobel and the Fields Medal (for mathematicians) enough for granny and granddaddy scientists?

For every such elderly scientist there are dozens of brilliant young researchers struggling to raise funds and lab equipment to make the next scientific breakthrough.

Hong Kong research is under-funded and underdeveloped, especially at a time of budget cuts. Our young post-docs could certainly use the money. But I don't suppose there is much international prestige for Sir Run Run in a photo op with young scientific nobodies.