Another Week, Another New Prize. Is That a Good Thing?

When it comes to funding scientific discovery and technological invention, the typical model is for philanthropists and foundations is to support researchers at big universities and other institutions. But there's also a long tradition of organizations using big, public cash prizes to spur advances, and it goes back long before most modern philanthropy.

These days, prizes are more popular than ever among funders, and we've voiced our share of doubts about their proliferation. As Tate Williams recently wrote in Inside Philanthropy, prizes are good when they inject badly needed new energy into a field, open up philanthropy to newcomers, and don't leave runner-ups feeling like they've wasted a whole bunch of time. Prizes are problematic when they raise false hopes, lead to wasted efforts, and obscure the realities of scientific progress, which stems more from collaborative grunt work over years than mad rushes of genius. 

Related: The Perils of All These Prizes

The best-known of the current innovation prizes is XPRIZE, which offers multimillion-dollar payouts to teams competing in various areas including space travel, adult literacy, lunar exploration, and the safe sequestration of carbon dioxide. XPRIZEs have some of the problems mentioned above, leaving the door so wide open for contestants that wasting people's time is almost inevitable. But XPRIZE also excels at thinking in truly grand ways about some of the most pressing challenges of our time and competitions do set aside money for runners-up. 

All of which brings us to the new XPRIZE. Along with oil company partner Shell, the organization just announced the $7 million Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE. It's a three-year global challenge to advance technologies for unmanned ocean exploration. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is putting up $1 million of the total purse to the team that develops technology to identify a specified object in the ocean through biological and chemical signals.

We've written a lot about philanthropic efforts to better understand and protect the oceans, and there's a good reason so much money is coming to this area: The health of oceans is crucial to humanity's well being. 


“Our oceans cover two-thirds of our planet’s surface and are a crucial global source of food, energy, economic security, and even the air we breathe, yet 95 percent of the deep sea remains a mystery to us,” said Peter Diamandis, the founder and executive chairman of XPRIZE, in a press release. “In fact, we have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of our own seafloor. The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE will address a critical ocean challenge by accelerating innovation to further explore one of our greatest unexplored frontiers.”

Shell has worked with XPRIZE before, including as a sponsor and judge in the $1.4 million Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge, in 2011.

The new XPRIZE is definitely targeted at producing vital new knowledge. What's not so great is the potential for people to waste time here. The guidelines for this competition state, "XPRIZE believes that solutions can come from anyone, anywhere. Scientists, engineers, academics, entrepreneurs, and other innovators with new ideas from all over the world are invited to form a team and register to compete." This premise seems overly optimistic. Meanwhile, competing teams must shoulder all the costs of developing whatever new technology is needed. With $7 million dangling out there, our bet is there will be some pretty unrealistic entries. That's not the end of the world, and there is some money set aside for runners-up, as we said. But it is worth continuing to think about whether the prize model is the best way to fuel innovation. 

Interestingly, one of the older, historical science prizes was also ocean-related. The Longitude Prize, created in 1714 by the British Government, offered £20,000 (about $5 million in today's dollars) for a method to determine longitude for seagoing ships, which was necessary for accurate navigation. The prize led to two solutions, including development of a super-accurate marine clock. The Longitude Prize was recently relaunched as a contest to find a method to test bacterial infections and determine appropriate antibiotic treatment. (Owing to 300 years of prize inflation, however, they upped the purse to $£10 million, or $15 million.)

In 1906, at the dawn of modern aviation, reported the Financial Times, British newspaper proprietor Lord Northcliffe offered a £10,000 prize to the first aviators to cross the Atlantic Ocean. (Nope, not Lindbergh—John Alcock and Arthur Brown won the cash in 1919, after flying from Ireland to Newfoundland.)