The science prize that’s making waves

Gillian Tett at the Financial Times: “The Ocean Health XPrize reveals a new fashion among philanthropists’…There is another reason why the Ocean Health XPrize fascinates me: what it reveals about the new fashion among philanthropists for handing out big scientific prizes. The idea is not a new one: wealthy people and governments have been giving prizes for centuries. In 1714, for example, the British government passed the Longitude Act, establishing a board to offer reward money for innovation in navigation — the most money was won by John Harrison, a clockmaker who invented the marine chronometer.

But a fascinating shift has taken place in the prize-giving game. In previous decades, governments or philanthropists usually bestowed money to recognise past achievements, often in relation to the arts. In 2012, McKinsey, the management consultants, estimated that before 1991, 97 per cent of prize money was a “recognition” award — for example, the Nobel Prizes. Today, however, four-fifths of all prize money is “incentive” or “inducement” awards. This is because many philanthropists and government agencies have started staging competitions to spur innovation in different fields, particularly science.

The best known of these is the XPrize Foundation, initiated two decades ago by Peter Diamandis, the entrepreneur. The original award, the Ansari XPrize, offered $10m to the first privately financed team to put a vehicle into space. Since then, the XPrize has spread its wings into numerous different fields, including education and life sciences. Indeed, having given $30m in prize money so far, it has another $70m of competitions running, including the Google Lunar XPrize, which is offering $30m to land a privately funded robot on the moon.

McKinsey estimates that if you look across the field of prize-giving around the world, “total funds available from large prizes have more than tripled over the last decade to reach $350m”, while the “total prize sector could already be worth as much as $1bn to $2bn”. The Ocean Health XPrize, in other words, is barely a drop in the prize-giving ocean.

Is this a good thing? Not always, it might seem. As the prizes proliferate, they can sometimes overlap. The money being awarded tends — inevitably — to reflect the pet obsessions of philanthropists, rather than what scientists themselves would like to explore. And even the people running the prizes admit that these only work when there is a clear problem to be solved….(More)”