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Hong Kong's Shaw Prize comes of age

'Nobel of Asia' gains recognition in global scientific community

Rainer Weiss, professor emeritus in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, gives an acceptance speech at the Shaw Prize awards ceremony in 2016. (Courtesy of The Shaw Foundation HK and The Shaw Prize Foundation)

HONG KONG -- Rainer Weiss had never won a prize for his work in physics. That changed in 2016, when he and two other scientists were awarded the Shaw Prize for their groundbreaking achievements in gravitational waves.

The honor proved to be a harbinger: A year later, Weiss received the Nobel Prize in physics for the same research.

While the Hong Kong-based Shaw Prize is not as well known as its Swedish cousin, its importance has been growing steadily in the global scientific community. In the 15 years since the Shaw Prize Foundation began naming laureates, it has gained a notable track record of recognizing scientists who have gone on to win the Nobel. Of the 79 Shaw laureates, 12, or 15% of the total, were later awarded the Nobel.

The Shaw Prize, which is sometimes called the "Nobel of Asia," includes three annual awards -- for astronomy, life sciences and medicine, and mathematics. Each includes a monetary award of $1.2 million, compared with 9 million Swedish krona ($987,000) for the Nobel. This year's laureates -- from Argentina, France and the U.S. -- were named in May and will be honored at a glitzy banquet in Hong Kong on Wednesday.

While there is some overlap in categories between the Asian and Scandinavian awards, such as the Shaw's prize in life sciences and medicine and the Nobel's prize in physiology or medicine, the Hong Kong organization intentionally avoided mirroring the Nobels. When establishing the prize, the foundation gave attention to subjects that it believes will be "fast-growing in the 21st century," said Raymond Chan, chairman of the Shaw Prize Foundation.

Weiss and others who were among the first winners say it has earned its stature because of the stellar reputation of the selection committees, which are composed of highly respected doctors, academics and researchers from Asia, Europe and North America.

"I knew many of the people who had won the prize over the years," said Weiss, professor emeritus in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, adding that over the years the Shaw Prize has touched on every important aspect of astrophysics. Being included in that group of recipients, he said, was an "enormous" distinction.

Kip S. Thorne of the California Institute of Technology shared the Shaw and Nobel prizes with Weiss.   © Reuters

Kip S. Thorne of the California Institute of Technology, who shared the Shaw and Nobel prizes with Weiss, echoes that sentiment. Since the first award was handed out in 2004, "it has had a very eminent history," he said. "To receive it was an honor."

Chan credits the academic strength of the committees for the success of the prize. With the high standards they have set, he said, "The Shaw Prize has been awarded to the most illustrious individuals, honoring their work, and has changed the world."

The prize was founded by Run Run Shaw, the Chinese-born media mogul who ran the legendary Shaw Brothers movie studio, which produced some of Chinese cinema's greatest films during its heyday in the 1960s and '70s, and who helped launch TVB, Hong Kong's dominant TV station. Shaw, who died in 2014 at the age of 106, was also a prominent philanthropist. Today he is known as much for his charitable work as for his business acumen.

In the past three years, two other prizes have been established in Hong Kong by prominent businesspeople.

Lui Che-woo, chairman of K. Wah Group    © Reuters

Lui Che-woo, chairman of K. Wah Group, a property, entertainment and hospitality conglomerate, founded his namesake Lui Che Woo Prize to recognize individuals and organizations in three areas: sustainability, welfare betterment and positive energy. Previous recipients include former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. Winners of the Lui Che Woo Prize receive a cash award of 20 million Hong Kong dollars ($2.55 million). The awards ceremony will be held in early October.

The Yidan Prize, launched by Charles Chen Yidan, co-founder of Tencent Holdings, awards two prizes annually for education. Each has a cash grant of HK$30 million. This year's winners, announced in mid-September, will be honored at a ceremony in December.

Philanthropy among wealthy businessmen in Asia received renewed attention this month, when Jack Ma Yu, founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group Holding, said he would relinquish his title next year to focus on education. And when Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing stepped down in May as chairman and executive director of his two flagship conglomerates, CK Hutchison Holdings and CK Asset Holdings, he made clear that his heart was with the Li Ka-shing Foundation, a charity founded in 1980 focusing on education and health care.

Ruth A. Shapiro, chief executive of the Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society, a Hong Kong-based research and advisory organization, and co-author of the book "Pragmatic Philanthropy," notes that one of the differences in philanthropy in Asia compared with elsewhere is the desire for guanxi -- or enhanced relationships -- with business partners, friends and governments, in addition to seeking support for charitable donations. "It confers status not only to the donor but to the region," she said.

"Ego factors into philanthropy a lot, but that's not idiosyncratic to Asia by any stretch. We all seek status, and philanthropy is one way to achieve that," Shapiro said. "Is Bill Gates really going to be remembered for an operating system that probably will cease to exist in the not-too-distant future?" she said. "Ego, in that sense, is helping within a constructive outcome."

The Shaw Prize Foundation is going through a transition following the death last year of Mona Fong, the wife of Run Run Shaw, who had developed the prize from its inception. But day-to-day operations have continued without interruption. Fong's "presence is very much missed on a personal level, but her forethought of putting in place strong management ensures the continued efficient operation of all aspects of the foundation's work," Chan said.

Chan said the foundation continues to develop programs beyond the annual Shaw Prize awards ceremony. To raise public awareness of the prize, the foundation organizes lectures and public forums with laureates in Hong Kong during the week of the awards event, and it will expand those activities to other cities around the world.

Those efforts will help ensure the continuation of the Shaw Prize in the coming decades, as Run Run Shaw intended. And the laureates express confidence about its legacy.

Michael W. Young of Rockefeller University in New York, who shared the Shaw Prize with two others in 2013 for their discovery of molecular mechanisms underlying circadian rhythms and received a Nobel last year for the same work, noted: "The strength of the prize is based on those who have been named in the past, and it is an accumulating history." The award is, he said, "highly significant and highly prestigious."

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