since moved to the National University of Singapore.">

A billionaire with a moral compass and a scientist without one – what’s going on?

By Steve Pointing 10/12/2014


So the price of a Nobel medal is US$4.1m. That is what Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov paid this week for James Watson’s medal, the first to be sold by a living recipient.  After his purchase Mr Usmanov promptly announced that he would be returning the medal to Watson, and with an expectation that Watson would now donate the proceeds to his almer maters – Cambridge, Chicago and Indiana.  At almost US$1.4m each that should be a welcome injection of funds that hopefully will get spent on scientific research, as Usmanov has stated was his wish – although Watson had also earlier hinted that he may buy a David Hockney painting with the proceeds, and also apparently stated that he would donate the proceeds to the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory – which was a laudable gesture if true since he was dismissed as Chancellor there in 2007 for alleged racist comments.
This investment in science by Usmanov is a mere drop in the ocean to him since he is Russia’s richest man and also majority shareholder of Arsenal football club – where ironically a first team player can earn the Nobel medal’s value for playing just a handful of soccer games each year.  However, this gesture deserves major appreciation in my view, philanthropic donations are noble and fund a significant portion of the good science being undertaken worldwide today.  Even generosity is not without controversy however – the Gates foundation has been criticised for funding AIDS research preferentially over other more catastrophic human pandemics such as malaria, and interestingly a race-related trend even echoes into billionaire philanthropy – where the nationality of billionaire members in the Giving Pledge (a group who pledge the majority of their wealth to charity, www.givingpledge.org) does not match the number of billionaires by country (Forbes Rich List, www.forbes.com).

I suppose the “take home” message from my rambling above is this: Science that matters is woefully under-funded, especially compared to soccer.  Part of this is due to myopic leadership by governments worldwide (but also sadly due to some academics wasting scarce funds by engaging in poorly focused research with low impact outcomes).  However as a societal statement this should not surprise us: The ruins of one of our greatest civilisations, the Roman Empire, feature a prominent coliseum where (albeit rather bloody) sport was the order of the day but the great Roman library at Ephesus pails in comparison!