Eyes on the innovation prize

Tim Harford: “In 1737, a self-taught clockmaker from Yorkshire astonished the great scientists of London by solving the most pressing technological problem of the day: how to determine the longitude of a ship at sea. The conventional wisdom was that some kind of astronomical method would be needed. Other inventors suggested crackpot schemes that involved casting magic spells or ringing the world with a circle of outposts that would mark the time with cannon fire.

John Harrison’s solution — simple in principle, fiendishly hard to execute — was to build an accurate clock, one that despite fluctuating temperatures and rolling ocean swells, could show the time at Greenwich while anywhere in the world. Harrison and countless other creative minds were focused on the longitude problem by a £20,000 prize for the person who solved it, several million pounds in today’s money.

Why was the prize necessary? Because ideas are hard to develop and easy to imitate. Harrison’s clocks could, with effort, have been reverse engineered. An astronomical method for finding longitude could have been copied with ease. Inventing something new is for suckers; smart people sit back and rip off the idea later. One way to give non-suckers an incentive to research new ideas, then, is an innovation prize — that is, a substantial cash reward for solving a well-defined problem. (Retrospective awards such as the Nobel Prize are different.)

For decades after Harrison’s triumph, prizes were a well-established approach to the problem of encouraging innovation. Then they fell out of favour, with policymakers instead encouraging innovation with a mix of upfront research grants and patent protection. Now, however, prizes are making a comeback. The most eye-catching examples have been in the private sector: the $1m Netflix prize for improved personalisation of film recommendations or the $10m Ansari X prize for private space flight. Last year Nesta, a UK-based charity for the promotion of innovation, launched a “new longitude prize” of £10m for an improved test for bacterial infections, marking the anniversary of the original prize’s founding in 1714.

But the big money potential is in the public sector. In 2007, several governments (and the Gates Foundation) promised a $1.5bn prize for a vaccine for pneumococcal meningitis. The prize, called an “advanced market commitment”, is structured as a dose-by-dose subsidy rather than one giant cheque. It is being paid out and millions of children have already been vaccinated. Much bigger commitments are possible: before US senator Bernie Sanders began his run for the presidency, he introduced two Senate bills that would have provided almost $100bn a year as medical innovation prizes.

But why are innovation prizes attractive, when the existing system of grants and patents seems to have served us reasonably well so far?…(More)”