This June, it was announced that innovation charity Nesta has offered a £10 million prize for the creation of a “cheap, accurate, rapid and easy-to-use point of care test kit for bacterial infections” under the title of the Longitude Prize 2014. This name hearkens back three hundred years to 1714, when Parliament offered a reward of up to £20’000 (around £2.5 million today) for the development of a method that could determine a ship’s East-West position (longitude) to within 30 miles. Though it took half a century, John Harrison was awarded a significant prize in 1765 for inventing the chronometer.
Since then, hundreds of millions of pounds have been awarded to individuals or organisations for meeting specific targets in the development of science, engineering and technology in similar inducement prize contests. Competitions like the Longitude Prize have (in the past century particularly) been the motivation behind a number of impressive feats of innovation, from transatlantic flight to solving the Poincaré conjecture. So, where do such challenges stand in relation to conventional methods of research funding? Are we approaching a reality in which science is formalised into contests with rigid targets, deadlines and prizes?
There are a number of issues with inducement prize contests: firstly, the targets have historically been set by governments, charities and for-profit corporations, not universities or research groups. While the intentions of many are noble (the XPRIZE organisation aims “to change the world for the better”), they are by necessity short sighted and narrow in scope. Judging between competitors requires well-defined goals to have been originally set, and these goals have to be achievable in order to attract entrants. All this combines to make a system which works best when applied to problems that have already been solved and just require extending or economising (“fly across the Atlantic” versus “fly”, or “sequence the genes of 100 centenarians for less than $1000 per genome” versus “sequence the human genome”). This has its merits, and certain contests will undoubtedly lead to innovations that benefit people across the world, but it is not in the domain of science.
Science, as I understand it, is predominantly concerned with understanding how our universe works. Engineering is the application of this knowledge to making human life easier. This distinction is what makes contests like the Longitude Prize ultimately unsuitable for funding science research. Setting a target of application skips over the necessary steps of theory and experiment for the sake of knowledge itself, and pitting organisations or individuals against one another hinders the global cooperation which has characterised science in the modern era.
So, are inducement prize contests useful for inspiring innovation? Of course. Do they encourage greater public engagement in science and engineering? Yes. Will they replace traditional methods of research funding? Probably not.