Silicon Valley hosts lavish ceremony for Breakthrough prize that aims to give scientists celebrity status and inspire interest in life's 'big questions'

Silicon Valley has a tendency to tackle social ills with big ideas, its feisty startups revolutionising everything from healthcare to education. Now a handful of billionaire engineers have turned their attention to a social blight that affects their own kind: the lack of appreciation (and funding) for scientists.

The second Breakthrough prize for life sciences is being held on Thursday in Nasa's Ames Research Centre in Mountain View, California, about a five-minute drive from the headquarters of Google. It will probably be the most lavish awards ceremony that its six winning scientists have ever been to.

Actor Kevin Spacey is expected to host, while comedian Conan O'Brien and actor Glenn Close will make presentations. Organisers hope for the whole event to be televised, and the six prizes will be worth $3m – each. This is by all accounts the most lucrative award in science, almost triple the size of the Nobel prize, and bigger than the $1.7m Templeton prize. It's expected to be bigger and bolder than the last similar ceremony, held on 20 March 2013 in Geneva, Switzerland, where Morgan Freeman hosted and Sarah Brightman sang.

It's like the "Oscars of science", says Yuri Milner, the wealthy technology investor behind it all. Once upon a time Milner was himself a physics major at Moscow State University, but he ended up dropping out and embracing the world of tech investing instead. In 2009 he steered one of the first big funding rounds in Facebook, before putting money behind Groupon, Zynga, Twitter and Airbnb and picking up a host of new contacts and street cred in Silicon Valley. In 2011 Forbes magazine valued him as a billionaire.

The following year, he launched his original Fundamental Physics prize and bestowed $3m on Alan Guth, a physics professor at MIT who conceived the idea of cosmic inflation and the early rapid expansion of the universe. Guth's bank account reportedly zoomed up from a paltry $200 to $3,000,200 after organisers deposited his prize. There was a $12 wire transfer fee, but he probably didn't mind paying.

In the last year, Milner has invited some of his billionaire pals in the Valley to stump up money for the prize too, and in what he says are roughly proportional slices: Google's Sergey Brin, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Alibaba founder Jack Ma have agreed to join him in contributing $7m annually to both prizes. The four men are worth nearly $52bn combined, according to the latest estimates by Forbes magazine, and Milner suggests with a chuckle that their commitment to annually funding the award won't wane any time soon. All winners are also obliged to be on a committee to judge the next year's nominees, which is why the first round of winners of the Breakthrough prize was the biggest: 11 scientists took home a total of $33m.

Both the Breakthrough prize and the Fundamental Physics prize seem to be Milner's attempts to remain instrumental in the field that intrigued him all those years ago, and bestow riches unheard of among even its biggest luminaries. His reasoning is that the public puts an unhealthy emphasis on figures in the world of entertainment and sport, while fundamental science gets neglected.

"It's not a good thing for society at large," he says. "There was a time when people like Einstein were well known and recognised by the public. They had a lot of influence." A lack of collective interest in fundamental science means people don't think as much about "the big questions" of life and the universe as they could. "What is the universe? What is energy, matter, the stuff of life? Where did they come from, how do they work?" The ideas posed as answers, he says, can be "unifying".

"Instead we focus on the very short-term problems that have an immediate impact on our lives," Milner says. He believes that British theoretical physicist Paul Dirac's prediction of the existence of positrons and his relativistic quantum mechanical equations were among the key breakthroughs that led the field of technology to ultimately build semiconductors, create computers and the whole of Silicon Valley. To Milner's undoubted chagrin, far more people in Silicon Valley itself probably know about David Beckham than Dirac.

In the same vein, 19th-century Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell came up with equations that predicted radio waves, a discovery with unintended consequences born out of "trying to understand how the universe works", says Milner. "Eventually, a huge fraction of gross national product in the world is based on discoveries made all those years ago. But do these people get credit as they live, and do we celebrate them?"

It's easy to see why science has struggled to get the public recognition it deserves: much of it goes over everyone's heads. One of the scientists shortlisted for the Fundamental Physics prize, for instance, is Michael Green of Cambridge University, nominated for "opening new perspectives on quantum gravity and the unification of forces".

Still, Milner believes that with the right combination of celebrity endorsement and cash, scientists touting the most complex theories can become modern-day celebrities. "That would be a really good outcome," he says.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Milner's prizes have come under some criticism from scientists and even a few Nobel prizewinners, who claim they benefit the egos of their founders more than anything else. They are, says one physicist quoted in Nature magazine, "buying the prestige of Nobel". After scientist Alexander Polyakov received his orb-like Fundamental Physics prize from Morgan Freeman last March, and instantly became a millionaire, he told Nature backstage that it was all an "interesting experiment. Such big prizes could become very influential and they can have a positive impact," he added, "or they can be very dangerous."

Some also complain that these well-heeled prizes focus on already-established researchers who don't need lavish funding as much as peers in other, more obscure realms of scientific endeavour. They also don't give credit to the wide, collaborative networks of researchers whose collective efforts lead to breakthroughs as much as the work of lone geniuses.

On the other hand, winners from that first batch of the Breakthrough prize have said they'll be looking to nominate up-and-comers. Napoleone Ferrara of the University of California, who won his prize for research into cancer and eye diseases, has reportedly said he'll seek out "rising stars" among future nominees. Milner says he wants to inspire young people to follow in these scientists' footsteps. If they know recognition and rather large sums of money could be within their grasp, even if it does take a big stroke of luck, they'll be more likely to start exploring those big questions themselves. © Guardian News and Media 2013