Should Spokespersons Keep The Money ?
    By Tommaso Dorigo | December 11th 2012 01:32 PM | 22 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Tommaso

    I am an experimental particle physicist working with the CMS experiment at CERN. In my spare time I play chess, abuse the piano, and aim my dobson...

    View Tommaso's Profile
    The news of the prizes to theorists and experimentalists are going to receive million-dollar prizes ($3M and $1M, details everywhere else -but see Peter's blog for insightful comment and discussion) are shaking the CERN experiments. While arguable (as in any case of a prize) whether they deserve the prizes for their work, nobody really ventures to discuss what they should or shouldn't do with the money. In the case of ATLAS and CMS spokespersons and past spokespersons, however, opinions vary widely.

    While the current spokespersons Gianotti and Incandela have already declared that they are already thinking at ways to distribute the money to the young bright minds of their 3000-strong collaborations, I have not yet heard news of what the others are thinking of doing. In the meantime, the feelings in the collaboration go from enthusiasm for the well-deserved recognition to amazement at the narrow-minded choice to pick spokespersons (in Peter's blog somebody who really does not know what an experiment spokesperson is and what it takes to get there, argued flippantly "so why don't they give the money to the science reporters instead?").

    I have my own opinion of course.

    To understand where my mind is, consider. Do we need the Milner prizes in physics ? Sure, it is a very good thing that money from a philantrophist goes to fund -or make happier- scientists doing fundamental research. But I think any of us could think of better uses of those funds, while keeping them in HEP. So, the situation is: somebody throws money at you, for a good or a bad reason. You decide that the money is not dirty and it does not break any law or any ethical issue to take it, so you take it. Are you then obliged to think of ways to use them in the way that is best for your experiment ?

    I think the CMS and ATLAS spokespersons have no obligation of that kind. But I will say more: I think they deserve the money, and should keep it for their own sake. 333,333 US dollars will not make them rich, but will certainly pay a few bills. It is time we realize that basic research in fundamental Physics is important for mankind, and it is paid very, very poorly. I will not compare my salary with Incandela's - he probably makes four or five times as much as I do. But still, he has risen to the top of one of the most important experiments in current science, and he is recognized as a leader by 3000 among the brightest minds in HEP. He has earned the money. And so have the other spokespersons.

    My two cents - no pun intended.


    The purpose of these prizes is publicity -- it is fairly small potatoes compared with what it takes and has taken to run the LHC and experiments. So I think what the spokespeople do is not critical -- the spokespeople are not poor at all and don't need the money, but distributing it to all the postdocs and grad students in the experiments would only give each a few hundred dollars. I predict that they will probably be nice and put it (or at least most of it) into a fund for the experiments, as well as the machine, but it will not be a huge input. Money can definitely always be used though -- it might help especially with small hardware additions and funds for things like prizes for analysts, for small celebrations, etc. The publicity is what counts most, though. Many thanks to Dr. Milner for his extremely kind and wonderful endeavour.

    let me disagree: Incandela et al did a great job, sure. An actor would have made more cash for showing some logo at the presentation. But the spokespersons had an amazing team behind to get ready in record time which is as worthy of the cake. I think that, to dedicate the prize to the unknown and forgotten students crunching the numbers would be a great gesture.

    By the way, if the spokespersons make a fortune writing their stories, that would be fair a great. We need those stories now that the Higgs boson is hip!

    Hi Tommaso,

    Thanks for the links to the discussion on my blog. I do want to point out though that I know the commenter who made the flippant comment about spokespersons, and he knows quite well about the actual role of spokespersons, but was, well, just being flippant to make a point.

    they are already thinking at ways to distribute the money to the young bright minds of their 3000-strong collaborations
    Why would they split the money?  What are researchers going to do with a thousand dollars?
    If they are not poor at least part of the motivation for giving the money away may be to avoid bad blood within their group.

    Splitting the award up equally among every member of the collaboration would result in an individual amount that's insultingly low. A graduated distribution would only make for bad blood. So what to do? I say, donate the money to good causes (science education in the third world, perhaps?) and keep a small fraction (say, $10,000) for yourself without a bad conscience.

    I'm pretty sure that many of the more junior members of the collaborations would not consider $1000 insultingly low :-)

    But I agree with you - they should use the money to contribute in some way to the advancement of science, or science education. While they have the right to keep it all for themselves, donating it (either to a good cause or to the members of the collaboration) would be a noble gesture in my opinion.

    Irony has it that 3M$ are awarded to people that otherwise have ca. 15k CHF salaries, tax exemptions, permanent appointments at the same time when taxpayer money fully fund the infrastructure of the experiments. As no one will ever be keen to award the taxpayer, let's at least remember it :)

    -- Martin

    >money is not dirty
    There are a plenty of homeless and poor children over there in Russia. Unimaginable numbers.
    On CapitalistImperialistPig blog (entry: )
    one can find, that Mr Milner is actually a macaroni factory owner. And as far as I know (and it is just a plain standard, rule of thumb, of a young "capitalism" in a postcommunist countries) he does not pay his employers well.
    So he may play a "generous philantropist" on the West without any problems.
    Please step down on the earth readers of this blog: he just wants to be fameous...

    Hi Tommaso,

    Nice post, one that I agree with the arguments but disagree with some (not all) conclusions. First off I am completely with you that it takes very hard work to get to a spokesperson position. I would add however that, and I believe you agree with me, it takes a good dose of charisma and "being good at politics" to be elected, not only scientific excellency counts.

    On the specific issue on "if they should or not keep the money", that's a tough one, but let me begin saying I also agree with you they have no obligation to distribute it. I think they should have never gotten in the first place, and it is here where I disagree with you.

    The idea of a scientific prize is, in my understanding to recognize a particular scientific achievement. In the specific case of the Higgs discovery this was a huge collaborative effort. The prize should not go for being "recognized as a leader by 3000 among the brightest minds in HEP", if that were the case one would not need a discovery for that, they earned it long before that.

    Let me put it other way. Look for what they got the prize for: "for their leadership role in the scientific endeavour that led to the discovery of the new Higgs-like particle". I'm sorry but this is ridiculous to me. If any person should get for that, the first people that should actually get that would be the conveners,and here I'm really talking about the sub-group conveners since they are really the ones leading the analyses. I's a lot of people but that would at least be fair to the prize description. I have to say I am happy of not being part of any Higgs group, if I were I would perhaps be pissed off now.

    In any case, I think the mistake is not on the the spokesperson side and they should do whatever they want with the money. I think we should stop having this really retrograde way of acknowledging collaborative work. It gives a wrong impression and is unfair relative to the prize objective. ATLAS, CMS and LHC are entities that should be recognized as a whole and nobody is alone able to personify that.

    the only real stance they could have made is rejecting the money.

    physicists are so cheap to buy.

    Hi Tommaso,

    From my perspective I think Milner unfairly passed over the experimenter with the most significant finding of the year; that being whoever discovered the loose wiring in the OPERA Experiment :-)



    I agree with Lyn Evans that driving around in a Ferrari would be bad for his image. It should be a Bugatti Veyron.

    Would ATLAS and CMS have discovered the Higgs without these particular spokepersons more or less at the same time? I have no doubt about it. This means the prize is not well targeted. Would inflation have been proposed without Alan Guth or Linde thinking about it? No doubt, but it might have taken much longer. Their prizes make more sense.

    Thanks to everybody who left here their comments on the matter. I imagined that the opinions would vary widely across the board, and it is nice to see a sample of them in this thread.

    I will say here something more that I have not written in the post above (because of being in a hurry when I wrote it): I consider prizes in basic research useless. We do what we do because we are men of science, and because we want to further our knowledge. We do not do it for the money, or for the glory. I think this is a condition shared by most of my colleagues. Money prizes are not needed nor particularly welcome (but please note that this blog is not a research endeavour, so if you are Jury Milner reading this, please donate a million dollars to my bank account to reward my contributions to science outreach: coordinates upon request).

    That said, I think there is another reason why the money should be kept by the recipients. By distributing it they become part of the money-giving system -they somehow acknowledge the mechanism. Giving back the prize as somebody above suggested is just stupid, on the other hand.

    Hi Tommaso,
    let me remind you that I and you, as well as all our colleagues in the same collaboration, are subject to the rule that prevents us from claiming a special role in any result produced by the collaboration.
    For example, I am not allowed to publicly present myself as the person who deserves the credit for a particular result, even if I was the only one working on that particular analysis, or its leader, and even if nobody would have been able to get that result if I had not worked on that. The agreed rationale for that is that we want to reward all people who did technical and/or boring work for the common benefit: without them indeed there would be no detector, no software etc., and therefore my nice analysis would not have been possible.
    (A fair mechanism to redistribute the money within the collaboration would be proportionally to the amount of "service work" served, which a thing that we do quantify already, for other purposes.)

    Anyway, I bet that the CMS spokespersons will not keep the money for themselves. I have no insider information about that, I am just applying psychology, and assuming that they would be embarrassed as I would be in their place.
    For sure, it would be extremely demotivating for me (and I am certainly typical in that) to think that somebody gets rich with my work, given that I worked for another purpose (if I wanted somebody to get rich with my work - including me - I could have accepted the offers that I got from an industry and an investment bank when I was younger.)

    I would suggest to invest the money in the form of grants to young collaborators (let's say at grad-student and postdoc levels.)
    But I am curious to see what they will choose.

    Hi Andrea,

    I understand your point, but I believe you miss mine. Doing what you suggest and foresee would make sense if the prize was given by a selection committee which is acknowledged by the collaborations, such that those rules you mention apply and have a meaning. But this is not the case: this is just a disproportionately rich individual who, for his own purpose (be it to feel good about his contribution to basic science, publicity, whatever) decides unilaterally to give money to selected few.

    [And I think I need not stress that I dislike the very fact that an individual can be that rich!]

    Let me be clear: Of course Milner did this through a selection committee he created. But I think we do not need to be hijacked this way. If Milner wanted to make a dent in the future of HEP, he would have donated 100,000,000$ to the CMS upgrade, or to a linear collider project. If he took my advice, though, he should donate 99% of his fortunes to bring fresh water to eastern Africa, or something alike.

    The fact that of course Incandela, Gianotti, and others own only part of the merit [O(0.0001), to zeroth approximation] of O(10000) collaborators does not morally oblige them to distribute (any way they chose to do it would still be opinable) the money they received.

    By your token, any of us should e.g. refuse to give a public talk on the Higgs discovery, on the basis that the talk was not assigned by our conference committee. I was invited to Festivaletteratura in Mantova in September: should I have turned it down because of fairness arguments with my colleagues ? No: I was identified as a person who could speak of the topic, and who had participated in the Higgs discovery, and I was given the job. No fairness, no internal rules. That's how the outside world works.

    Further, to stress the point you made: if spokes decide to give grants to youngsters, you and I could e.g. complain that the money ends in the hands of who have contributed in no way to the Higgs discovery (many grad students did not have the privilege to sign the Higgs papers, and future grad students of course also did not), instead than going at least in part to us. With a 1/3500 of a million dollars I could still buy myself a case or two of excellent wine, for instance.

    There is no way out if you fall in that logic.


    Just a minor point:

    > By your token, any of us should e.g. refuse to give a public talk on the Higgs discovery, on the basis that the talk was not assigned by our conference committee.

    Well, indeed the rules in this cases say that you should inform the conference committee ;)
    Depending on the cases, it may be sufficient that you only inform the HIG PAG conveners. (I actually had to do that when I was looking for a job and therefore giving seminars about my work, where I had necessarily to mention my own role in that. This is allowed, limited to the context of job-seeking, but the relevant conveners must have a look at your slides.)
    Just yesterday I made a procedural mistake, for example. I am one the scientific organizers of a small workshop of a very specialistic technical topic, and I know one by one the people contributing to that in CMS, therefore I contacted them individually. Nevertheless, I was explained, I had to open a page for that event on CINCO, so that the speakers can upload their talks there, and get it approved by the relevant responsibles. So far so good. But then it also turned out that I cannot invite the speakers as I want, because it would not be fair for the other members of the collaboration. So I can nominate them, but also others can self-nominate, and the Conf. Committee will then choose, trying to take into account the wish of the organizers to invite somebody specifically but not being bound to that.

    Ops, only now, by following the links in Woit's blog, I see that indeed the CMS spokesperson mentions that he wants to make a use of that money quite similar to what I suggested in my comment above. So that's probably part of the standard way of thinking of us HEP guys.

    Prizes are pretty random, so getting hot and bothered about them is a waste of time.

    Burt Richter strongly opposed the SPEAR run that lead to discovery of the J/Psi; Roy Schwitters argued hard for that run. But Richter got the Nobel Prize, not Schwitters. Of course SPEAR itself existed in large part due to Richter, although opinions differ a lot as to whether the e+e- program at SLAC was delayed or advanced in time due to Richter's techniques of pushing for e+e-. These things are quite complicated in the end.

    I might have suggested the advocates of great electromagnetic calorimeters for ATLAS and CMS should have gotten the prizes. At the time of the proposals, now many years ago, those calorimeters seemed extravagant. But for H>gamma gamma they were important. I doubt the Milner prize award makers are sophisticated enough to sort that issue out.

    I'm happy to read something that, for a couple of minutes, takes my mind away from the fact that once more string theorists try to pass as physicists by putting brilliant names next to theirs...

    Had the awarders given even a moments thought to this issue, they may have come to the solution I think is best: rather than award the money arbitrarily to the spokespersons (we can agree this is fairly arbitrary, no?), they should have given the money to the establishment of research "schools" within the projects. That is, they should have started a trust for funding PhD and young postdoc positions within LHC-experiment groups.

    Considering the committee is currently made up entirely of theorists, it's no wonder they didn't realize exactly what sort of gargantuan collaborative effort goes into producing the results.