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The Role of Prizes In Innovation

CowboyNeal posted more than 7 years ago | from the throwing-money-at-a-problem dept.

United States 87

Carl Bialik from WSJ writes "The Wall Street Journal's David Wessel assesses the impact on innovation of the increasing number of prizes, such as the X Prize, that reward solvers of intractable problems. From the column: 'Prizes prompt a lot of effort, far more than any sponsor could devote itself, but they generally pay only for success. That's "an important piece of shifting risk from inside the walls of the company and moving it out to the solver community," says Jill Panetta, InnoCentive's chief scientific officer. Competitors for the $10 million prize for the space vehicle spent 10 times that amount trying to win it. Contests also are a mechanism to tap scientific knowledge that's widely dispersed geographically, and not always in obvious places. Since posting its algorithm bounty in October, Netflix has drawn 15,000 entrants from 126 countries. The leading team is from Budapest University of Technology and Economics.'"

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First post (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17761818)

First post for the first time WOO!

Who cares about prizes? (2, Insightful)

matr0x_x (919985) | more than 7 years ago | (#17761824)

The fact is that any team capable of solving these problems is worth MUCH more than any prize offered. Offering a prize is pointless IMO - it's like giving a surgeon a $20 bill every he saves a life.

Re:Who cares about prizes? (1)

geekbeater (967717) | more than 7 years ago | (#17761976)

Sheesh most Doctors I know are such incredible cheapskates they'd TAKE the $20.

Re:Who cares about prizes? (2, Informative)

caffeinemessiah (918089) | more than 7 years ago | (#17762012)

The leading team changes every few days in the Netflix prize. For the longest time, it was a guy from U Toronto called NIPS Reject, then it was the whole ML team at the same uni, then it was, and now it's Team Gravity. It's come to the point where successive improvements are incremental and hardly significant over the previous leader. What should be interesting now is if anyone has the big breakthrough that actually wins the prize. Check out the actual Netflix leaderboard []

Re:Who cares about prizes? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17762578)

Everyone does NOT love Raymond.

Unless you really mean that not a single person in the world loves Raymond, then that should be "Not everyone loves Raymond."

Re:Who cares about prizes? (1)

micpp (818596) | more than 7 years ago | (#17763734)

Well, can you name a single person who loves Raymond?

Re:Who cares about prizes? (1)

caffeinemessiah (918089) | more than 7 years ago | (#17764636)

I absolutely cannot. In fact, I've changed my signature to more accurately reflect my feelings. Thank you, AC.

Re:Who cares about prizes? (1)

limecat4eva (1055464) | more than 7 years ago | (#17765338)

Let English be English. Fuck the hyperlogical, I say. Round 'em all up and send them on trains to Lojbanistan.

Re:Who cares about prizes? (1)

Prysorra (1040518) | more than 7 years ago | (#17762378)

"it's like giving a surgeon a $20 bill every he saves a life." Uh....he's *asking* for f@cking five thousand. Maybe the spirit of invention is enough of excitement for you, but nothing says "INVENT ME PLEASE" like the chance to pay the bills.

Re:Who cares about prizes? (1)

loki_tiwaz (982852) | more than 7 years ago | (#17763192)

the whole point is not about the money, that is nominal money anyway, the point is that it becomes a race that people will put way more energy into than just 10x the money.

what would be even better would be if governments and their research budgets would cut their advanced research funding and just fund basic research like genome mapping and drug studies and that sort of thing, simple stuff that nobody thinks will lead to a breakthrough, and putting the rest of the research budget into a number of prizes.

a bounty is always better than a pre-payment in the world of crime, why would it be any different in science. it doesn't even exclude competitors teaming up in an agreement to split the prize if they win it.

Re:Who cares about prizes? (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17763788)

It's possible that smart people will do something useful if left on their own, but there are several advantages to a contest:

- If a specific kind of problem has a real business application, having a contest will get you a pretty good solution much sooner (probably years sooner) than just waiting for the right academic guys to decide they feel like solving your problem. Having a standardized problem description, standardized software interfaces and file formats, and a forum for lots of different people working on the exact same problem to talk *will* make progress on that problem faster.

- In general, giving people more boundaries and rules to work with can help them focus and be more productive. If I say to the smartest man alive, "Create artificial intellegence," he'll probably be stuck for years before (and if) he has anything to contribute to the world. If I say, "Create computer vision software," same thing. If I say, "Make these dogs play a winning game of soccer" or "Make this car autonomously drive through a desert" I might actually get some results. The more specific the question, the easier it is to be productive in trying to solve it.

- Sometimes great ideas come from unexpected places. There are a lot of smart people out there at schools that don't have great original research going on, or smart people who don't know how they should apply their talents. Since many academic competitions have a very low barrier to entry and school officials like it when their school wins competitions, it's possible to get useful work from people and places who wouldn't otherwise have been thinking about worthwhile problems.

A surgeon may save a life everyday just by following procedure, but there isn't a scientist alive who comes up with a novel idea every day. Offering scooby snacks is a harmless and friendly way to keep scientists' spirits up when they're taking a big risk by trying to solve a problem that may be impossible or unexpectedly difficult.

The pay enough, don't they? (1)

Habrok (987413) | more than 7 years ago | (#17765296)

If someone will work for the pay on offer, can you really say it is too cheap?
If you find a (good) surgeon willing to save your life for $20, would you decline?

Too me, this seems a very interesting alternative to patents. It certainly seems like the economic incentive is enough to drive innovation quite spectacularly. Of course, participating in one of these contests also give you (or your team) good PR. So if this kind of contest ever became common-place it would probably be necessary to up the prize sums somewhat.

I quote myself from yesterday [] about the benefits of contests:

  1. No costly (and boring) research for prior patents.
  2. No costly licensing schemes.
  3. No lock-out of small business through cross-licensing agreements.
  4. No patent-trolls, everyone must prove their technology.
  5. Can be extended to areas where we don't have patents today (like business processes, or UIs, or software (I live in Europe)).
  6. Can give incentives to everyone who comes up with a working solution, not just the first out the door.
  7. Can be used for directing efforts into non-profitable areas (like medicine for the third world).
  8. Taxes are a lesser evil than monopolies (in the amounts we're talking about here).

It's mostly about exposure (2, Insightful)

Refried Beans (70083) | more than 7 years ago | (#17761840)

If innovators work on a project alone, they have to work really hard to get people to pay attention to their work. If there is a contest at which the organizers are already taking care of the publicity, they have a better chance at turning their work onto better opportunities. All they have to do is make a good showing at the contest.

Re:It's mostly about exposure (1)

caffeinemessiah (918089) | more than 7 years ago | (#17762196)

Plus, a contest provides a standardized (usually very difficult) dataset, and standardized metrics for evaluating the result. Provides a fair comparison of everyone's bright idea on a given real-world dataset.

Re:It's mostly about exposure (1)

sethstorm (512897) | more than 7 years ago | (#17763524)

Provides a fair comparison of everyone's bright idea on a given real-world dataset.
However, such can be skewed by relative wealth and favoritism of exclusionary conduct. Factor out market and failures thereof, and you can get a better solution.

I'll give $100 to the moderators that... (0, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17761870)

I'll give $100 to the moderators that mod this comment up in some sort of innovative way (+5 Offtopic perhaps?)

Re:I'll give $100 to the moderators that... (2)

kypper (446750) | more than 7 years ago | (#17762014)

Ahh, moderate you offtopic, then underrated multiple times. I like it.

Speaking of Offtopic... (4, Funny)

megaditto (982598) | more than 7 years ago | (#17762118)

"No, officer, I was not patronizing a prostitue, I was merely offering this young lady an XXX prize."

Re:Speaking of Offtopic... (1)

DigiShaman (671371) | more than 7 years ago | (#17763256)

"Really officer, she accepted my string-of-pearls as a gift"

Sales! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17761906)

"The Wall Street Journal's David Wessel assesses the impact on innovation of the increasing number of prizes, such as the X Prize, that reward solvers of intractable problems. From the column: 'Prizes prompt a lot of effort, far more than any sponsor could devote itself, but they generally pay only for success."

Wow! We should apply this to the movie/music industry.

Re:Sales! (1)

baldass_newbie (136609) | more than 7 years ago | (#17763344)

Or what about this line...

The leading team is from Budapest University of Technology and Economics.
I guess you could say they were Hung-a-ry for success!!!!

Haha. I'm here all week.
Try the veal.

Re:Sales! (1)

szundi (946357) | more than 7 years ago | (#17766416)

I'm hungarian, and i have a different point of view. Hungary is not a rich country. Teachers and and people work in hospitals and medical areas earn so badly that it's a political ground of battle every day here. Lot of really talented people think they have to work as managers, etc to earn enough to have a good life. The problem can be seen if i say people here spend 50% of their salary just for food if they don't want to buy the cheapest crap in average. :)

If you present a low prize, it has really great value here. Not to mention the more more poor countries. It can significantly change a life of a talented scientist if he earns a prize. It's not about gold-hunting but it's about your -chance- to earn something for your hard and successful work in science. I see a lot of world-class professors here in 20 years old pullovers :) There's a chance they can buy an other :) It's far better to give away prizes for good specified successes than to fund those scientists that we can watch on discovery and idiot "science" new reports in news.

For the Glory (3, Interesting)

Original Replica (908688) | more than 7 years ago | (#17761910)

Especially, where universities are concerned, the bragging rights to a well advertised prize can be worth more than the prize itself. Competition also make a great muse.

Re:For the Glory (1)

caffeinemessiah (918089) | more than 7 years ago | (#17762130)

Competition also make a great muse.

Not to mention the fact that a million buckaroos would make even the most Bohemian/isolationist academic think " could I put that kind of money to good use?"

Prizes are nice but what of losers? (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17761996)

Prizes may be of some use. But on the other side of the equation exists the fact that if the prize offered outweighs the social benefit. Besides having an increase in depressed people. More seriously, you have wasted resources and time/energy of everyone who didn't win the prize. Those resources could have been channeled elsewhere or into other useful things.

Also, circling is the vulture of impossibility .. where a prize is offered to accomplish an impossible task .. resulting in complete waste of resources.

I am not saying prizes are bad etc. I am saying prizes aren't necessarily a panacea.

i did RTFA (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17762310)

FYI, I did RTFA .. I know the article itself said prizes aren't a panacea. But I was clarifying the reasoning .. which wasn't clear in the article.

Re:Prizes are nice but what of losers? (1)

TapeCutter (624760) | more than 7 years ago | (#17763262)

"Also, circling is the vulture of impossibility .. where a prize is offered to accomplish an impossible task .. resulting in complete waste of resources."

On the contrary, a prize is offered to accomplish an impossible task [] , can be of great educational value.

Re:Prizes are nice but what of losers? (1)

fredrated (639554) | more than 7 years ago | (#17764126)

That's what I though when I read

" important piece of shifting risk from inside the walls of the company and moving it out to the solver community,"

So depleting the solver community is for the benefit of the "company", why didn't I guess that?

Everyone's in the same boat (1)

eeek77 (1041634) | more than 7 years ago | (#17768252)

Remember that before the winner is chosen, every contestant is in the same boat. They're aware that they might lose. They knew this before they entered the contest. Hopefully, especially with big projects that cost a lot of money, they take this risk into account when they decide to enter the contest. Businesses who bid for projects must to evaluate this risk and deal with it to be successful. The company I work at bids for government (US Military) projects occasionally. Sometimes we don't get the project. It's part of the risk of doing business. The reason why it's an effective model is that individual companies can choose to take on the risk. It's the best way to allocate resources.

Re:Prizes are nice but what of losers? (1)

RespekMyAthorati (798091) | more than 7 years ago | (#17771110)

The people who tried and failed did not waste their time or energy.

It is impossible to work long and hard on anything without learning a hell of a lot about the problem domain.
For example, in the first DARPA "Grand Challenge" to build an autonomous vehicle, all the contestants failed miserably. But, several of the failing teams did brilliantly the following year. Would they have done so well the second year without the knowledge gained through "failure" in the first?

Self limiting (2, Insightful)

mdsolar (1045926) | more than 7 years ago | (#17762022)

Copernicus never got a prize. His accompishments were just too large to be recognizable. Prizes, especially those mentioned with fixed goals are a lot of fun, but can the truely innovative be discerned in time to reward the inovator? Only sometimes I think.
Go Solar: -selling-solar.html []

Re:Self limiting (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 7 years ago | (#17762886)

So you're saying that contests and prizes aren't the best possible means for every possible human endeavor? Blasphemy.

Re:Self limiting (2, Insightful)

mdsolar (1045926) | more than 7 years ago | (#17763404)

Some ideas and accomplishments seem to just fit and these are easily recognized. The discovery of DNA came about at a time when encoding was something people were thinking about. It just fit and was recognized with a prize. Some discoveries that are true and important may not fit right away, people's thinking needs to stretch so much that recognition comes only when it is too late to award a prize.

My point, then, is that seeking after recognition is likely to limit your final level of accomplishment. The goal of the X-prize is admirable, and those who compete grow from the challange. This is all good. But inner motivation moves people much further.
Change the world: solar is for you. -selling-solar.html []

Re:Self limiting (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 7 years ago | (#17765432)

I disagree. I think a lot of current science is driven by the desire for recognition. And scientific output drops about the time that either the scientist acquires said recognition or becomes more interested in some other goal like raising a family.

Re:Self limiting (1)

mdsolar (1045926) | more than 7 years ago | (#17770610)

I think you are most likely correct on the 'a lot' part, I'd even say 'the vast majority' for the simple reason that entry into science is accompanied by many hoops to jump through. Because this is part of the training, the habit of seeking recognition becomes pretty ingrained. And, it is pretty hard to be self-taught these days. It also seems to me that schools that have sought to counter this bias in the past have been cowed by the insistence that the transcripts they issue be comparable with those of grade based institutions. I seem to remember that Reed felt that its graduates weren't getting jobs dispite its extreme academic rigor.
Solar out of the box: -selling-solar.html []

Re:Self limiting (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 7 years ago | (#17786354)

Because this is part of the training, the habit of seeking recognition becomes pretty ingrained.

Human nature not training IMHO. But I suppose my comments don't negate your point. But since most people have motivations that aren't completely "inner", then there's good reason to consider providing such motivation for things we can clearly see a need for, like cheap(er) access to space or improving human health and longevity.

Re:Self limiting (1)

mdsolar (1045926) | more than 7 years ago | (#17787276)

I agree that human nature contains an urge to compete, but I'd add cooperate, contemplate, inquire and many other drives.
For myself, I like the horse race aspect of those prize competitions. And, I think that competition can bring out more in people than they thought they could do, as well. I just don't think it always can bring out everything they can do. That is the limiting aspect: the goal, however lofty, is still a cutoff of achievement.
This tag is not about solar power.

Re:Self limiting (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 7 years ago | (#17788710)

Anyway, the main reason I posted way back when, was because I saw yet another, "prizes can't do everything" post. It's true, but I don't see any serious attempts, even in the original article, to make this claim. There are many flaws going solely with a prize based system. You miss the subtle results that you didn't anticipate would be important. It's not worth using a prize system for minor things (eg, the scientific equivalent of deciding what to wear at home), And prize systems don't help you make decisions about what to do with the output of science. The markets are better for that. But somethings, you'll need historians a couple centuries from now to spot what was important now.

For example, I come from the background of mathematics where there are a lot of discoveries which still generate signficant implications decades or longer after the original discovery. I see the mythology of science in action. Ie, the claim that it's about curiousity, discovery, and other non-financial motives. I guess if you get a PhD in math and follow the usual track of going into academia, then it's quite true. You can't afford to be bothered by the salary that you'll likely receive, especially since there are considerably more PhD's minted than the nicest jobs, tenure track jobs. So that leads to two groups of PhD graduates, the ones who have a career of publishing work, and those who have a few papers and then vanish from the scene, foraging for work in the real world.

There's only so many jobs for new PhDs to make more new PhDs. So my take is most either teach math to undergrads or leave academia. The myth, that I mention above, helps rationalize this brutal process.

Re:Self limiting (1)

mdsolar (1045926) | more than 7 years ago | (#17788948)

I think some professional societies have been a little too enthusastic when it comes to promoting the prospects for employment in their fields. Your analysis should be included in profesional society literuature. My advisor, in astronomy, had one Ph.D. student partly because he saw the same math as you. But, your mention of math reminds be of another internal drive which is approching the sublime. In this case, any prize that turns up becomes irrelevant. We've seen a recent case of a major prize being declined: 2/1751225 [] for proving the Poincare conjecture. It is also worth remembering that making the stakes high can cut another way: [] .
Solar + geothermal heat + a plug in hybrid = no personal fossil fuel consumption. Get started at -selling-solar.html []

Re:Self limiting (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 7 years ago | (#17795322)

So are you saying that having prizes would cause people to be burned at the stake like poor Mr. Bruno? Of course not. But I don't really understand the point of including his sad tale. It's not like we're seriously going to consider burning people at the stake for having scientific opinions. And I doubt you would claim that if we did so that this wouldn't cripple scientific research in any society which did so (ie, it's not going to prove that most scientists are more interested in persuing the sublime rather than saving their own skins, because that isn't so). So why is it relevant?

I think of the myths of academia as sour grapes. The average academian will bounce around with a number of one year contracts before they settle into a position with some sort of job security (tenure or not). The outside world has limited respect (evident in the salaries that many of these people will likely receive), but perks can be good if you get a good position so people keep trying. But I think most academians know they would get far less in the real world, if they tried using the same approach that they use in the academic world. So they feel obligated to denigrate the outside world and its motivations. I agree that there's some higher motivation out there, but there's also baser motivation masquerading as higher motivation. Nothing here though that is unique to the academic world.

Re:Self limiting (1)

mdsolar (1045926) | more than 7 years ago | (#17795680)

No, I was saying that raising the stakes increases both risks and rewards, Bruno is sort of a limiting case on the risk side. I also think the grapes are sourer on all sides of the fence, just as base motivations are present everywhere as you point out. But, for the level of creativity that might go beyond anything that a prize could adequately recognize, highly refined motivations probably have a role to play of necessity. I like prizes. I just think that they can limit total potential creativity and thus be counter productive if the goal is advancing science. If, in the Baconian view, it does not matter who does the work, then getting more groups on the problem may make up for the limiting tendency, but if, say, getting a Nobel makes people do less future work, and their potential contributions are unique, then it could end up being a loss. But Bacon might be right.
Burma Shave: -selling-solar.html []

Science is *NOT* a contest, and reality cares not (2, Insightful)

shanen (462549) | more than 7 years ago | (#17762052)

The fundamental idea is so wrong it's just hard to know where to begin. It's related to the trivialization of scientific endeavor and the focus on publicity as more important than reality.

The days of the solitary inventor who could justify spending months or years pursuing a breakthrough and feel some sort of financial justification because of the expectation of winning a prize are long behind us. There might be some 'low-hanging fruit' still to be found, but not much of it, and if you knew where it was, it would make much more sense to just pick it rather than to offer a prize in hopes of motivating some gold seeker to find it. Major scientific breakthroughs now require serious investments, usually involve large numbers of people and long periods of time, and any profits are far downstream. You *NEED* to have that long-term perspective, not the motivation of a quick fix for a prize. Even the prize seekers admit they just want the publicity to help sell their results.

By the way, I actually work with researchers from a major lab. Some of them are even leaders in their fields, and have established track records of changing the world for the better far more than I ever will. Some of them have won prestigious awards and prizes, and I'm sure they'll win more in the future. However, it is very clear that they aren't motivated by prizes, and if they were, I'd take odds against them ever accomplishing much of anything.

Prizes are interesting for 'gold-hunting' pseudo-scientists, not for the actual hard working *REAL* scientists.

Re:Science is *NOT* a contest, and reality cares n (4, Insightful)

caffeinemessiah (918089) | more than 7 years ago | (#17762166)

Prizes are interesting for 'gold-hunting' pseudo-scientists, not for the actual hard working *REAL* scientists.

Just wanted to point out a slight flaw in your idealistic view of science and academia. We'd all LIKE it to be that way, but perhaps you've heard of one other prize that motivates some of the most brilliant scientists in the world in many fields? People spend their whole careers trying to get this prize, not just for the money but for the validation. Say what you will, but very few scientists have shrugged off the Nobel Prize as the goal of "gold-hunting pseudo-scientists".

Finally, in theoretical computer science and mathematics, it IS still possible for one person or a very small group to come up with a breakthrough. The Poincare conjecture was recently solved largely due to the efforts of a single mathematician. There are other examples, but TCS/math are not as vastly invested in massive research groups as say, particle physics.

Re:Science is *NOT* a contest, and reality cares n (1)

UnreasonableMan (1011485) | more than 7 years ago | (#17762896)

That's true, but I don't think a Nobel Prize is the reason the winners did what they did. It is just a pat on the back. I think where prizes are really effective is when they are very large, when there is a specific goal stated up front, and that goal can be reached in a relatively short period of time by a small number of people doing something a little innovative. The VC firm, Kliner Perkins, announced that they will be awarding an alternative energy prize with a $100,000 award every year to someone that did something remarkable. That doesn't spur any innovation. That's just a publicity stunt. The Nobel Prize isn't as uninspiring as that, but its similar. I think its a nice recognition, but not a motivator.

Re:Science is *NOT* a contest, and reality cares n (1)

Sunburnt (890890) | more than 7 years ago | (#17763272)

"The Poincare conjecture was recently solved largely due to the efforts of a single mathematician. "

How ironic, then, that he utterly shuns publicity and declined the Fields Medal. [] Something other than prizes motivates Perelman.

Re:Science is *NOT* a contest, and reality cares n (1)

caffeinemessiah (918089) | more than 7 years ago | (#17763992)

The point about Perelman was to illustrate that breakthroughs can indeed come from a single person in math/TCS. I understanding not reading the article, but not reading even the comments?

Re:Science is *NOT* a contest, and reality cares n (1)

fredrated (639554) | more than 7 years ago | (#17764184)

Do you have a problem with irony? His point was perfectly lucid and I appreciated the reminder.

Re:Science is *NOT* a contest, and reality cares n (1)

caffeinemessiah (918089) | more than 7 years ago | (#17764606)

Something other than prizes motivates Perelman

I never said the prize motivated Perelman. Thus the poster's comment was an implied rebuttal to my own. While his statement was ironic (as it claimed to be) -- and I have no problem with irony and even agree with his statement -- it was as a whole based on the premise that I had implied Perelman "did it for the prize".

Re:Science is *NOT* a contest, and reality cares n (1)

Sunburnt (890890) | more than 7 years ago | (#17778934)

The simple irony of Perelman's nature in light of the conversation does not invalidate your point about individual genius. I was pointing it out as an interesting tangent, not a rebuttal.

Re:Science is *NOT* a contest, and reality cares n (1)

shanen (462549) | more than 7 years ago | (#17763500)

Maybe I've missed it, but I cannot recall a single example of any winner of *ANY* Nobel Prize, not just the science categories, who ever claimed that winning a Nobel Prize was part of their motivation. In fact, I even believe that the committee would count it against any nominee who said so. Do you care to provide *ANY* example of your claim?

I repeat. Real science is *NOT* a contest.

Re:Science is *NOT* a contest, and reality cares n (1)

caffeinemessiah (918089) | more than 7 years ago | (#17764574)

No, because you're asking for silly evidence, along the lines of "Can you prove that any politician has ever claimed to be in politics for the kickbacks (before being indicted)?" You're right about one thing though -- they'd be stupid to admit it to the Nobel committee. I'm also not saying that winning the prize motivates individuals to go for the prize 100%. What your original comment claimed is that the promise of the Prize (with capital P), or any prize or recognition for that matter, has absolutely no part to play in the endeavors of "true" scientists. In reality, I suspect there's a middle ground: where good scientists are indeed motivated by the reward of personal accomplishment and advancement, but also --- in some --- by the need for recognition. And prizes offer just that.

While I can't provide the evidence you ask for, there are a LARGE number of examples of scientists pulling underhanded stunts to appropriate enough credit to look good for a prize committee, or hell even a grant committee. You'd be naive to think otherwise. These aren't "bad" scientists -- their work is often excellent and advantageous to the field at large. It's just that their motivation, or social methods, might be less than pure. Have you read Watson's "The Double Helix"? He comes across as quite a bastard, and he wrote the book himself. The bottom line is that scientists -- good or bad -- are humans, and suffer from the same shortcomings that everyone else does, and that includes the need to be recognized sometimes.

This isn't offered as hard evidence, but read Carl Djerassi's book "Cantor's Dilemma" sometime for a plausible look at science (he's the biochemist who invented the birth control pill, also writes fiction on the side).

I repeat. Real science is *NOT* a contest (2, Insightful)

Darthmalt (775250) | more than 7 years ago | (#17764822)

"I repeat. Real science is *NOT* a contest

I disagree. Pharmaceutical companies, chemical companies, food companies, are all using science and scientific experiments in a contest to make their product better than their competitors. Even scientists that work at Universities are always competing against one another. They compete for funding, resources, and in different universities, to see who can find a solution first.

Re:I repeat. Real science is *NOT* a contest (1)

shanen (462549) | more than 7 years ago | (#17778630)

Oh, so now you want to play word games with the definition of contest. And the moderators rate it as insightful? Right. Typical /.

Re:Science is *NOT* a contest, and reality cares n (1)

susano_otter (123650) | more than 7 years ago | (#17764484)

The Nobel Prize includes a princely sum of money, actually.

Re:Science is *NOT* a contest, and reality cares n (1)

Original Replica (908688) | more than 7 years ago | (#17762376)

"The Space Race" was most definitely a contest.

Re:Science is *NOT* a contest, and reality cares n (1)

shanen (462549) | more than 7 years ago | (#17763512)

So where was the prize? Or are you simply trying to reinforce my point? I shudder to suggest that you should read the actual article...

Re:Science is *NOT* a contest, and reality cares n (2, Insightful)

UnreasonableMan (1011485) | more than 7 years ago | (#17762760)

A prize is simply a way to leverage more effort from more people to solve your problem. Look at the Darpa Grand Challenge: winning-the-darpa-grand-challenge/ []
They could have spent $2 million dollars funding each team, which is the way they'd approached funding in the past. Instead they spent $2 million for ALL the teams efforts, and it worked. What a spectacular bargain.

Prizes are perfect if you have a specific goal that's almost achievable, but you need to get a bunch of young innovative folks excited about it. In general, prizes are appropriate for engineering problems, not for fundamental science. Here's something else I wrote about why Google should use a prize to fund fusion. On the face of it, that sounds stupid, but I think it makes a lot sense if you think about it: ld-go-nuclear/ []

Re:Science is *NOT* a contest, and reality cares n (2, Interesting)

khallow (566160) | more than 7 years ago | (#17762790)

Science is full of contests (you already mention awards and prizes, for example). They get instant recognition at least in their field for being the first to discover an important idea or discovery. Contests are a way to demonstrate to the whole world that something is important rather than the few dozen people who have some interest directly in your work. $10 million for the first fully privately funded organization to put someone into space in a reusable vehicle. That's a big statement about the importance of doing that activity.

Instead, you complain that "pseudo-scientists" get the prize while the real scientists keep working hard, toiling in the shadows. I guess a world where the importance of science and of course, society's connection to reality just isn't that important. Where real science needs to be trimmed so the tots can have their astrology charts read or whatever. At some point, that's what's going to happen when the relevance of science to society and reality goes away. At least, a monetary prize attaches something real to that scientific progress and generates broader awareness about what's going on. Go ahead and push the myth of the selfless toiling scientist. Just don't be surprised when society fails to take that science seriously as a result.

Re:Science is *NOT* a contest, and reality cares n (1)

nernie (1050594) | more than 7 years ago | (#17763594)

Especially in a field like computer science, prizes are very good because they give researchers motivation to work with the same data set as everybody else. It is much easier to compare the relative strengths and weaknesses of algorithms and approaches when people work towards the same goal.

And there are other reasons for very *REAL* scientists to try to win prizes. Winning prizes gains prestige for their institution, and prestige for their institution helps provide the resources they need (students, grants) to do research.

It would be great if the world was as perfect and idealistic as it appears through your eyes.

Open Source Similarities? (2, Interesting)

Quaz and Wally (1015357) | more than 7 years ago | (#17762062)

Seems like the mentality that goes into working on such prize projects probably goes into open source projects.
  • The desire to expand your knowledge and skill.
  • A personal interest in the completion of the project at hand.
  • The need for recognition.
  • Something to put on your resume.
Have corporations found a way to utilize this motivation in projects other than software? What role does the cash prize play in this if people are spending many times fold in attempting to win the spoils?

Proof of concept prizes (2, Insightful)

hypermanng (155858) | more than 7 years ago | (#17762082)

The X Prise had more to do with stoking an incipient avenue of development than anything as narrow as looking for an immediate solution. It shows that whatever it is can be done, or done better. There's publicity for the contestants, yes, but also for the contest. In cases where a company puts up the money, I'm sure that the prime functions are to create buzz for its industry (as well as the company's place in it) and as a method to identify hireable talent.

Prizes can serve to bypass politics, bureaucracy (1)

MillenneumMan (932804) | more than 7 years ago | (#17762414)

Unfortunately, many if not most of the oldest and most successful research facilities are now mired in political and bureaucratic sludge. Research funding and even hiring too often is now driven by political motivations. I am glad that these prizes provide an opportunity and motivation to restore the joy (and hopefully progress) in research.

Two words: (1)

nonorganon (1009761) | more than 7 years ago | (#17762434)

More publicity.

Offering seemingly large prizes means:
1) More media attention.
2) More people interested in competing.

Indirectly, it helps make the science and funding for further research more popular. Simple, ain't it?

Still no fusion prize (2, Insightful)

Baldrson (78598) | more than 7 years ago | (#17762566)

Fusion energy prize legislation was drafted 15 years ago and submitted to Congress by one of the founders of the US Tokamak program, Robert W. Bussard [] . There is good reason to believe this legislative proposal was a precursor to resurgence of interest in technology prize awards later in the 1990s.

More recently, Dr. Bussard gave a talk at Google HQ about his currently favorite fusion technology and it has caused some commotion [] .

It's profoundly disturbing that the US is willing to spend a trillion dollars on war in the middle east getting negative results and not willing to devote even one tenth of one percent of that to fusion energy prize legislation that pays for positive results only.

Re:Still no fusion prize (1)

UnreasonableMan (1011485) | more than 7 years ago | (#17763016)

The Focus Fusion Society proposed it in 2004: x_prize/ []

Unfortunately, the X-Prize Foundation response in 2006 was less than encouraging: read/10/ []

Here's what I wrote about it: ld-go-nuclear/ []

Re:Still no fusion prize (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 7 years ago | (#17763582)

Whoever makes fusion work gets to sell it. It would be plenty of a prize.

Re:Still no fusion prize (1)

silentounce (1004459) | more than 7 years ago | (#17768092)

I guess you don't consider a sum of over one billion US$ [] to be a significant contribution to the development of nuclear fusion. Considering that the resources necessary to make a viable reactor would be ridiculous for any independent company or individual to obtain. That's why that the major technologically advanced nations of the world have combined resources for such a project.

Just a thought (2, Interesting)

troll -1 (956834) | more than 7 years ago | (#17763030)

When I was in college I had a professor who doubted that prizes in science bring about any new inventions or discoveries that wouldn't have been made anyway. He argued that progress in science usually comes about through cooperation, not competition, and that the most significant advances in science were all made by people with little of no financial incentive (e.g. Newton, Einstein, Flemming, etc.)

The article doesn't say whether the Ph.D. crystallographer who solved the pathology problem won a prize, but I wonder if a prize would have made a difference.

Re:Just a thought (1)

mblase (200735) | more than 7 years ago | (#17763420)

When I was in college I had a professor who doubted that prizes in science bring about any new inventions or discoveries that wouldn't have been made anyway.

Did you ask him if he'd have ever written his thesis if a degree hadn't been attached to its success?

Re:Just a thought (2, Insightful)

TubeSteak (669689) | more than 7 years ago | (#17763728)

He argued that progress in science usually comes about through cooperation, not competition
Has your professor ever done research?

Until it all gets published, researchers guard their data/results like a dragon guards its gold.

There are very few fields that I'm aware of where that is not the normal behavior.

As for Flemming, didn't he have a nice practice going on the side? Something about treating syphilis?

I want to win! (1)

textstring (924171) | more than 7 years ago | (#17763040)

So where are the prizes in the fields of computer science/mathematics/computational sciences? [links] (goatse me if you'd like)
Our grad students mustn't have the cash money to pay for their thesiseses.

Can we lose the blood-splattered banner icon? (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17763148)

"What's that, sir?" said the karma-policeman, "Is it making you feel ill?"

Problems solved by the masses... (1)

JCondon (1029908) | more than 7 years ago | (#17763472)

After examining 166 problems posted by 26 research labs on the InnoCentive site over four years, Karim Lakhani, a Harvard Business School professor, found 240 people, on average, examined each problem, 10 offered answers and 29.5% of the problems were solved.
Wikiproblema? Perhaps student's homework assignments could be done the same way.

Dead end. (1)

DerekLyons (302214) | more than 7 years ago | (#17764070)

From TFAS(ummary):

Competitors for the $10 million prize for the space vehicle spent 10 times that amount trying to win it.

Not even remotely. The word on the street is that SpaceShip One cost around $20 million - and Scaled Composites was the only entry that was fully funded. The remaining entries had essentially no funding.
It's also worth pointing out that historically, technology prizes tend to be won by point solutions - rather than the general purpose solution desired. The City of St. Louis [] , for example, was a specially built aircraft that was essentially an evolutionary dead end. The Thompson Trophy [] was supposed to encourage technology development for fighter aircraft - but didn't. SpaceShip One has the same problem - it's a point solution that scales poorly.

Re:Dead end. (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 7 years ago | (#17779696)

While Scaled Composites was certainly the only "fully funded entry", there were other contestants that may have likely succeeded had Burt Ruton not sent in his entry.

Notably Armadillo Aerospace certainly has been showing some surprising results, as has the Romanian ARCA group. Both have gone off to other areas now that the X-Prize has been "won".

I will admit though that many of the other 30 teams were there in name only, and it seems as though the entry fee they paid was only to help boost the overall success of the X-Prize Foundation. Only a small handful of groups ever got to the point of actually having some sort of flyable hardware at all. And that would put Homer Hickam [] from the "Big Creek Missile Agency" as one of the major contenders (had they decided to enter the contest).

As for prizes that lead to supposed "dead end" technologies, I would argue that the "Spirt of St. Louis" did help spur on additional aeronautical development, as once Lindburg did cross the atlantic, it then became more of a contest to say how to do it more comfortably, reliably, and with more cargo (the Spirt of St. Louis had esentially no payload except perhaps the pilot himself). Once you could show to some investor that the idea was technically feasable because it had already been done once by somebody else, it opens up many other ideas to try the same task again and again.

I would argue that Spaceship One does the same thing: It is possible to build a spacecraft that would get you to the edge of space, and to build one cheaply. It certainly has opened the doors up for other groups who are also building spacecraft, and has "legitimized" the idea of personal spaceflight that does not involve working with NASA. While this may have happened without the X-Prize, the contest certainly did focus the contestants on a concrete goal and also provided a forum to share their ideas and experiences.

Orbital spaceflight costing substantially less than $20 million (per passenger) will be possible in the next couple of decades, and possibly sooner. How much less and by whom is going to be part of the fun to see what exactly will happen.

YOU FAIL IT? (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17764098)

Two Things: (1)

susano_otter (123650) | more than 7 years ago | (#17764396)

Two Things:

One, it seems almost exploitative, to fund innovation this way.

Two, it seems like a sizeable population of idle rich is necessary, to find a pool of investors sufficient to fund innovation this way.

Re:Two Things: (1)

cbacba (944071) | more than 7 years ago | (#17782946)

To understand some of what the prize approach can do, one should read Dava Sobel's book, Longitude, which makes a fascinating and instructive look on the effort to achieve a prize of major value.

One thing a prize does is provide an open invite to the nonestablished 'inventors' to participate. While it might bring out some kooks, it also can bring out some who are 'thinking out of the box'. The predisposition of the greatest minds of the time in the longitude prize case was to solve the problem by astronomical means. This included Newton, one of the greatest minds ever. The prize (or some special dispensation associated with it) went to Harrison, a tinkerer and clock builder - and an extraordinary mind in mechanical engineering.

Please note that a research grant given to the Newton Research Lab would not have resulted in a practical solution for use during the common shipboard problems of stormy or cloudy weather.

As for exploitive, it could be if all the work product of the nonwinners were kept by the contest operators and denied use by the contestants. That is seldom the case and the rules of the contest are usually posted for all entrants to read. It is then up to the entrants to decide if the contest is worth their time and investment or not. If it's up to the contestant and there is full disclosure of the contest rules - it cannot be exploitive as it is the decision of the contestant whether to participate.

Please note that applying for grant money is the same thing but with far more exclusivity as one competes in a 'contest' to obtain grant money. Here, who one is or where they work oftimes counts for as much as what one proposes to do. I could just imagine a Harrison type character, maybe call him Farnsworth, living in Nowhere Idaho or some other podunk location tries to compete with some engineer from RCA or GE's Menlow Park facility for a grant to invent a remote transmission movie device or a new and improved hi-fi music type of radio. I doubt Farnsworth would have made it past the first cut for grant money.

There would never be enough money to provide significant grants to every contestant for a prize like the longitude prize. Besides, who would consider providing grant money to the guy that suggested anchoring strings of ships within signalling range across the oceans or some with even whackier nutjob ideas. Once one starts the exclusions, who's to say wether that tinkerer Harrison's audacious idea of an accurate clock mechanism that works in different temperatures and locations with a required unparalleled accuracy never before achieved by all the professionals in the industry could possibly sound more reasonable than setting up strings of ships across the oceans.

The idle rich? Except for those in DC pretending to represent the poor, there are very very few around. Most of the rich who aren't working a job are concerned with preservation of capital and minimizing risk. Investing big bucks in speculative enterprises is often not associated with either of those efforts. I guess Paul Allen? was the idle rich guy that put up a bunch of money for the x-prize winning team. I wouldn't be surprised that if you worked as hard as he did or does, that you might make it into your 'idle rich' category too, but I doubt you've ever come close to working that hard.

From what I've seen, it's the much less rich gamblers who take the big chances and do things like fund wildcat drilling where an investment in multiples of $10,000 can either bring a whole lot of money in or totally dissappear like the chips on a roullette table. Then again, that's a lot like being a farmer - where 10s of thousands of dollars may be spent on crop seed and fertilizer as a bet that it's going to rain so much over the next few months and not rain any after that for a month.

Finally, there is the potential benefits of winning the prize and the benefit of achieving something even without winning. That something may be a product or it may be the knowledge and experience that has been gained in trying. That knowledge and experience can be quite valuable if it can be applicable to something desirable. The knowledge and experience gained in losing a stuff your face hotdog eating contest is usually not very valuable - unless you can find an antacid company needing a TV commercial celeb. However, becoming a far better programmer or engineer by honing skills in one or more contests could lead to tremendous improvements in job satisfaction and compensation.

In life as in evolution, there are winners and losers. It starts with attitude and requires adaptation. It's not a good idea to think dodo bird.

A butt-kick for academia (1)

Animats (122034) | more than 7 years ago | (#17764704)

It worked for the DARPA Grand Challenge, but not in the way most people think.

The prize was the carrot. But there was a stick, too. The Grand Challenge was a real threat to robotics funding at CMU and Stanford, which had been getting DARPA money for decades but were progressing very slowly. Originally, neither university's robotics group intended to enter. But there were apparently hints that if the non-university entries did significantly better than the people DARPA had been funding, the funding for the big robotics labs would be in jeopardy.

At Stanford, the management of the AI Lab had to be replaced to get real results. That was done, and things picked up quite a bit. There was a significant breakthrough in robotic vision for the Stanford vehicle. That was the real payoff in all this.

The CMU vehicles were what someone above called a "point solution" - the searchlight-sized gyro-stabilized gimbal with a line scanning LIDAR was a technological dead end.

Re:A butt-kick for academia (1)

totallymeat (763102) | more than 7 years ago | (#17768788)

That's very a interesting angle on the whole thing that helps explain some broader trends in the contest. I went to CMU, and even though I was excited about their entry, I always had nagging doubts about the general design of our entry. I was surprised there were so many automobile-based designs. Since there weren't any restrictions on the vehicle shape per, you'd think there would be designs with more stability than a four wheel vehicle. I mean, even though a Hummer is ridiculously stable when it comes to cars, they flipped the thing over during the pre-race testing the first year resulting in last minute wound tending. Where were all the track based vehicles? Where were all the non-traditional form factors that can't fall over, like tracked spheres or other Platonic solids?

Special Case (1)

Duncan3 (10537) | more than 7 years ago | (#17764866)

Prizes are only interesting if you're already working on it before the prize, and know you're gonna win already. For everyone else involved, it's just a PR stunt and a way to do really really cheap R&D.

If you're smart enough to win one of these prizes, don't be a dumbass - go file the patents and sell them the solution for 100x more!

The usefulness of waste (1)

RealGrouchy (943109) | more than 7 years ago | (#17764886)

I haven't RTFA, or even TFAS, but this reminds me of why waste is important.

For example, the article presumably says that prizes are good. The concentration of money into one person's (or one body's) bank account so that it could be spent on stuff like this, could be considered "waste" (particularly when it's spent on really stupid shit).

Another example is how governments keep trying to reduce "inefficiencies" and programs that don't have proven results. The problem is, if you want to get one successful program, you probably had to go through two or three which weren't successful (and therefore are "wasteful"). Any entrepreneur knows that this is really "risk", and not "waste", but conservative governments these days...

- RG>

Re:The usefulness of waste (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17770984)

"but conservative governments these days..."

Poor liberal, they axed your program...

Bandwagons are not good for the long haul (1)

maccam (967469) | more than 7 years ago | (#17766974)

Prizes aren't a panacea. They won't replace corporate R&D labs or universities.

The targeting aspect of prizes is geared to the short term not the long term. The danger to the long term research is that prizes may achieve headline-making successes, and, as a result, clueless politicians and CEOs/CFOs may be inclined believe this is the best R&D funding model, because it allows them to parade short-term results in front of voters or share holders. This could lead to dumping or reducing funding to corporate R&D labs or universities, where what is currently 'blue sky' research may well lead to major breakthroughs 20 years down the road. Prizes are a good supplement to existing research funding and may produce quicker solutions to some vexing problems, but it would be disastrous in the long term if most funding were delivered this way.

Prizes I would like to See (1)

gurps_npc (621217) | more than 7 years ago | (#17778062)

Here are the things I think we need a prize for. Each one is something that we scan get fairly quick advancements in, but appears just out of reach.

Cheap Silicon production (for solar power)

Better battery: 1. by weight and 2. by volume

Better Voice recognition software

Electronic voting machine with paper trail, prize awarded for the one hardest to break into.

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