The Golden Ticket


The shiny envelope contained a cheque – a multimillion pound prize to reward science and technology innovation.  It’s the science equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket. The process of prizes seems simple; offer a monetary reward to incentivise science or technology innovation.  Yet the lavish nature of past science prizes has been criticised. Some have suggested that prizes feed the ego of billionaire funders more than they advance science or produce role models.

Longitude 2014 is Nesta’s first multimillion-pound science and technology prize to solve a major societal problem. As we get swept along in the hype around science and technology prizes, should we look at the small print before we say ‘yes’ to the golden ticket and the invitation to the chocolate factory?

The situation is complex.  First we need to establish that there are different types of prize. We can simply spilt prizes into two categories. There are more complex ways of categorizing prizes, and the people who design prizes would probably growl at us for this. Anyway, onwards…

The first and probably the most famous prize type is the recognition prize. The most well known is probably the Nobel Prize. A reward made for amazing achievements in science, technology and the humanities after the innovation has taken place.  For some these are perceived to raise the profile of science, for others these seem to provide valuable tokenism; an effective way of rewarding certain scientists, reflecting society’s appreciation for science. In some respects this type of prize allows science to stick to its Mertonian norms. One central facet of Merton’s argument was that scientist should behave disinterestedly with no emotional or financial attachments to their work. Despite the glamorous ceremonies, these prizes are good at preserving this view of the scientist; where the people ‘doing’ science are on a quest to solve a problem. Their view is unclouded by personal opinion or monetary gain, they do it for the love of science. Recognition prizes reward achievements without making scientists look unprincipled.

The second category is the inducement prize, which is a different kettle of fish. They seek to capture existing and new interest in a pursuit to achieve a given goal set out by the prize designers. It’s a bit like bounty hunting – catch this piece of science through your data, hand it to us safely and in exchange we will give you a monetary reward.

Inducement prizes

Inducement prizes generally can be split into two domains. The first are those that look to achieve ‘moonshot’ thinking, a phrase used by Google’s Solve For <x>. These prizes look to accelerate solutions through science and technology. These solutions appear so far off that its worth having a prize to hurry things along. A good example is the Virgin Earth Challenge.  The second are those prizes that address a particular societal problem, in areas of science that may be less desirable or profitable, where scientists would have little incentive to find solutions.

The prize design

Alexandra Hall, Senior Director of the Google Lunar XPrize told me, “The most effective part of the process for us is ‘visioneering’, a process whereby we get lots of people in the room, from scientists to designers and musicians.” This process allows the development of prize design, which is vital to achieving eventual successful innovations.  Visioneering brings together people from both the creative and scientific fields to scope possible future challenges which science and technology innovation could address.

This is an important step in the prize design process, the visualising of the future, the knowing what might come next, especially when the scope of your prize might be looking 10-20 years into the future. A prize must be both achievable but also not too achievable based on current scientific knowledge. The Archon XPrize is a good example of how easy it is to misjudge the scale of scientific challenge. The prize was announced in 2006 and offered $10 million to the first team that could rapidly and accurately sequence 100 human genomes, at a cost of $10,000 or less dollars per genome. The expected pace of research has accelerated so much so that a genome can now be sequenced for less than $5,000 dollars, therefore the Archon Genomic XPrize was recently cancelled.

This raises questions about the value to science of inducement prizes; how do we accurately predict the future and set realistic goals? Do prizes stifle innovation through strict criteria? After all, lots of good science has happened by accident, from the synthetic dye and the ink jet printer, to penicillin and vulcanized rubber. Should we rule out inducement prizes because they won’t let us advance further than our imagination will allow?

It’s easy to design a challenge with a set metric or a specific achievement by which it can be judged. For example the Lunar XPrizes have a requirement to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon and subsequently send back two “mooncasts” to the earth. The question remains of how we design a prize to address a significant societal problem. Indeed more generally academics such as Nelson have asked why science has found it so difficult to solve major societal issues, when we have successfully put men on the moon.

Here ideas of innovation and the way in which knowledge is produced and utilized come into question. The concept of an ‘innovation system’ to describe the organisation of institutions and polices that direct technological change, has been used to better frame ideas around how science and technology come into being.

In his 2011 paper Nelson goes on to suggest that reorientation of innovation systems is a positive step towards allowing science and technology to address complex societal needs. However a fundamental barrier to innovation is limited knowledge and this needs to be highlighted. Indeed this problem can be seen in prize design, often the objective is to incentivise innovation, yet the judging criteria can be restrictive and exclude certain groups from entering.

Nesta’s multimillion-pound Longitude 2014 prize is seeking to reward innovation to solve particular societal problems. The Prize is currently under development, and it’s interesting to observe the intricacies that Nelson mentions being playing out.

Science could be seen as socially constructed, a process of interaction, sharing and validation, however setting specific science metrics to win prizes adheres to the empiricist view that science is in the pursuit of solid evidence. Jasanoff argued that science is a process of co-construction of knowledge. Nelson highlights that barriers in solving societal problems grow from limited knowledge. Belief replaces evidence, and there are divergent beliefs about the effects of various proposed solutions. Nelson uses an example of drug addiction and drug-related crime where lack of knowledge about solutions results in valued based conflicts within the scientific community. This is true today and I see challenges arising in the design of the Longitude Prize that follow the same pattern. There is disagreement in the scientific community about how we might tackle certain future societal problems.

Therefore it is imperative, that the Longitude Prize allows for unforeseen ‘moonshot’ thinking, and this must happen in the prize design phase. ‘Reoreintation’ of the innovation system with respect to inducement prizes would begin with flexibility in setting winning criteria. If we broaden our horizons the answer to solving the problem of drug addiction is as likely to come from a drug company as an artist or a designer.


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