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Suppose Alice wins the Nobel Prize and $1 million. Does the prize money go entirely to personal matters, or is she likely to use some (most/all?) of it for academic pursuits? If the latter, how does she go about it? Does she just "award herself" a grant similar to grants that academics apply for?

I'm particularly curious about the Fields Medal since it has a stated purpose to encourage awardees for further achievement, which can be interpreted as saying that awardees should use the prize money for academic purposes.

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    I’m particularly curious about the Fields Medal well, the monetary component of that prize is only $15000 CAD, which doesn’t buy a whole lot either for personal or research use. Regardless, AFAIK neither the Fields Medal, Nobel Prize or any of the other really major scientific prizes (Wolf, Breakthrough etc) have conditions on the usage of the prize money - it becomes the personal property of the recipient (after applicable taxes) and they are free to spend it just like any other part of their personal money. – Dan Romik Apr 13 '18 at 2:53
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    Well, if I were to win the Nobel prize, I'd certainly dissipate the money in gorgeous vacations in distant places, spas, good food, and good wine and beer. That's why they don't award me a Nobel prize! :-p – Massimo Ortolano Apr 13 '18 at 8:22
  • Any prize is a way to promote healthy competition - where the winner wants to stay on top, and the runner up wants to catch up. Not sure whether this is what actually happens, just finished a book on Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman that seems to suggest differently. – famargar Apr 13 '18 at 16:21
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    Historical footnote: Richard Feynman spent his Nobel bucks on a Mexican beach house (after his wife pushed him to). – user1008090 Apr 13 '18 at 17:14
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    I see you're asking about big prizes, so I'm just adding this as a comment: I've quite often seen best paper award money being spent on something (socially useful) for the whole lab: i.e. we got a smashing (and low-energy footprint) coffee machine a few years back that way :) – penelope Mar 15 at 12:32
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I suspect awardees do not use the award money to do research in the majority of instances. My opinion is not judgemental: in most cases, it would not make much sense to spend that money for research purpose.

In fact, the average Nobel (or Fundamental Physics Prize, probably the largest sum awarded as prize to scientists) is shared among several people, and amounts to a few hundred of thousands of US dollars each. While that is a large sum for personal purpose, it is not necessarily a large sum for research purpose.

More importantly, a Nobel medalist is certainly in the league, and with much better prospects of success, to obtain research grants that range in the millions (European research council grant for example). If you can fetch millions of research money every 5 - 10 years, what difference your ten times smaller, once-in-a lifetime Nobel prize sum would make? Of course the argument above is even stronger for the Fields medal, given its relatively low monetary value.

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Other have noted that it depends upon the Award. In the case of MacArthur "Genius Grants", popular press articles have examined how recipients spend this prize.

This New York Times article describes how most recipients used the money for things such as their charities, own research, debts, and other causes.

This Time article examined how 6 recipients used their prizes.

  • Interesting articles. However MacArthur prize awardees are not restricted to academics - and academics are actually a minority there. – famargar Apr 13 '18 at 16:11
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    @famargar Good point. Also, many Nobel Prize winners are not academics as well. – Richard Erickson Apr 13 '18 at 20:26
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    Approx 2/3 of Nobel are academics, about 1/3 of MacArthur are academics. But I agree with you, my point was mostly academical...in the pejorative sense 😉 – famargar Apr 13 '18 at 21:23
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Unless there is a particular criterion requiring that the money be spent on research causes, there is generally no restriction on how the prizewinner spends the money. It could certainly be used for things like travel on sabbaticals, donations to charitable causes they support, or even personal expenditures.

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Another important factor to consider is the tax policy of the country the winner is a tax resident of, and issues of international taxation.

I personally know of someone who was wealthy enough and living in a country to be in the tax bracket that a large portion of a monetary award to that person would have gone to tax. That tax was avoided by using the money for research instead. It funded a few PhD students for several years, and sufficient lab resources.

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