Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Who ever said there’s no fortune and glory in science? I just got wind of several multi-million dollar prizes for scientists who tackle some tough questions: called X-Prizes.

What is an X PRIZE?
An X PRIZE is a multi-million dollar award given to the first team to achieve a specific goal, set by the X PRIZE Foundation, which has the potential to benefit humanity. Rather than awarding money to honor past achievements or directly funding research, an X PRIZE incites innovation by tapping into our competitive and entrepreneurial spirits.

The X PRIZE Foundation began a revolution in private spaceflight with the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE. On October 4, 2004, the Mojave Aerospace Ventures team, led by famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, captured the Ansari X PRIZE. The world took notice of this great achievement and the winning SpaceShipOne is now hanging in the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum.

A just-announced prize from the “X Prize Foundation,” will award about 10 million dollars to anyone who can design an easily-manufactured car which can get 100 mpg.

This same foundation awards a multi-million dollar prize in genomics towards the development of “personalized medicine.” This includes using genetic data to predict disease susceptibility.

Hat tip Cameron.


  1. #1 MartinC
    April 3, 2007

    There is a basic problem with both those prizes.
    An easily manufactured car is most likely to be designed by a car manufacturer (and 10 million dollars is not exactly a huge temptation for them to aim for – make it a billion and it might be some incentive).
    Likewise the genomics prize is to be awarded to the person that comes up with a sequencing machine that will do a persons genome in a fraction of the cost and time of current methodologies – thus opening up complete genomic sequencing as a viable medical option. The problem with this idea is that WHEN (its not an ‘if’) this machine is invented it and patented (thus cutting off the competition) it will be such a huge seller – to research, forensics, clinical diagnosis etc – the 10 million dollars offered in this prize will be nothing compared to the potential market.
    Basically the two prizes on offer will only be won by companies that won’t need the money (and I cannot see a scientist getting anywhere near either prize). The only incentive might be for some degree of publicity generated for the winning companies.

  2. #2 Shelley Batts
    April 3, 2007

    Awww, shucks. So, I guess back to being poor and under-appreciated. 🙂

  3. #3 MartinC
    April 3, 2007

    How about just finding that old timey religion and going for the Templeton Prize ?

  4. #4 J-Dog
    April 3, 2007

    Shelley – Don’t listen to MartinC! You win it, I can help you spend it!

  5. #5 Shelley Batts
    April 3, 2007

    If only, J-dog!

    Martin that Templeton Prize was downright scary, but I suppose for $1.5 million people are willing to jump through hoops.

  6. #6 Roy
    April 3, 2007

    A car like that should be most easily designed by the automotive industry, but it should be pretty obvious by now that they’re not really showing a lot of interest in that area. The award may not mean anything to the auto industry, but there are plenty of people who will invest the money and do the research to win the prize, if only so that they can claim victory. As I recall, Space Ship One cost more to produce than the prize was worth, and one can assume that much of the competition’s participants also had crafts that costed more than the 10mil prize.

    One would have thought that the major space shuttle manufacturers would have had the easiest time developing a craft to meet the contest goals, but they didn’t even participate.

    I’d be willing to bet that the Big Three don’t even bother trying for the prize.

  7. #7 J-Dog
    April 3, 2007

    For $1.5 million, I can grin a silly “Creationist Preacher Smile(TM)”. Hell, I’ll even throw in an “Amen” or two!

    Shelley – Can’t you fix up somebody’s ear canal and claim it was a miracle? Maybe find a Madonna In Ear-wax? Come on! It’s $1.5 mil, and Templeton is looking to give it away!


  8. #8 Larry Moran
    April 3, 2007

    These are not prizes for science. They are prizes for technology.

  9. #9 Shelley Batts
    April 3, 2007

    Larry, where do you think technology comes from?

    As mentioned above, looks like it would be companies who would most likely get them but there isn’t any reason why non-companies wouldn’t qualify. And plenty of scientists go work in tech anyway.

  10. #10 Larry Moran
    April 3, 2007

    Shelley asks,

    Larry, where do you think technology comes from?

    Oh, that’s an easy one. Technology is the application of science so it comes from science. Do you have a point? 🙂

    My point is that technology is not science. I’d love to see an award for discovering something about how the natural world works. That’s science.

  11. #11 David
    April 3, 2007

    I have a personal approach for this whole science/technology semantic debate. Technology is engineering. Science is reverse-engineering. Or engineering is reverse-science, whatever.

    Anyway, have to agree with the first comment. The first X-Prize went to something, which at present, has almost nil practical/commercial appeal. Any group that substantially speeds up genomic analysis will be rolling in cash.

    I’m sure there are groups that would benefit far more with money to bootstrap their research at the beginning. Money is a lot more valuable when you don’t have any!

  12. #12 Opisthokont
    April 5, 2007

    I am in complete agreement with Larry Moran here, and would have made his comment already except that he got here first. These prizes are for the development of technological artefacts, not discoveries or observations or theories or any of the other direct products of scientific investigation. Yes, there might be some good science done in the course of developing those artefacts, but that does not make that course into science.

    Meanwhile, I think that the other part of the problem with this prize is the predictive part. Scientific progress can be amazingly hard to predict, especially by non-specialists, and the key discoveries appreciated by very few lay people until long after the fact. (How relevant to popular consciousness was DNA in 1953?) Someone famous (I wish I could remember who: Asimov? Feynman? Einstein?) once said that the most interesting science begins not with “Eureka!” but with “hmm… that’s odd!” What scientists find odd can be very hard for the general public to appreciate sometimes!

  13. #13 David
    April 5, 2007

    I believe it was Asimov.

  14. #14 Shelley
    April 5, 2007

    What scientists find odd can be very hard for the general public to appreciate sometimes!

    So true! And even if they DO, there’s no promise they’ll open up their pockets to fund it, either.

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