Can offering prizes for innovative solutions help the Gulf?

Excerpted from a piece I just posted on DiscoverMagazine.com:

Prizes: This old idea is making a sweeping comeback and it is changing the way government, industry and foundations help revolutionize future discovery. It’s high time we offer prizes to motivate and galvanize the public to come up with creative, real-time solutions to major disasters, such as the BP oil spill.

Approximately one-and-a-half weeks ago, I received an email from Andrew Revkin (who writes the DotEarth blog at The New York Times) in which he challenged researchers and others to think creatively about substantive approaches to stanching the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“There’s a lot of talk about sweeping Grand Engineering Challenges this year. But one is unfolding in real-time in the Gulf. Waiting months for a relief well seems pretty in the box,” he wrote in the email (reprinted with Revkin’s permission), and reiterated in this blog post.

While it’s true that BP is accepting public suggestions about ideas to mitigate the oil spill, the process needs some tweaking. From the Deepwater Horizon Response website: “Once a formal suggestion has been filed, BP technical personnel will carefully evaluate each and every one for technical feasibility and proof of application. If the engineering group finds the suggestion feasible, the person submitting the suggestion will be contacted if and when their support is needed.”

BP technical personnel will evaluate the suggestions? Seems a little too cozy to me.

For the same reasons President Obama wants to divide the Minerals Management Service into two agencies–one charged with inspecting oil rigs, investigating oil companies and enforcing safety regulations, and another to oversee leases for drilling and collection of billions of dollars in royalties–perhaps we should consider a third-party administrator to solicit and evaluate proposed solutions from the public.

I suspect the White House would agree. Earlier this week, Beth Noveck, U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer and Director of the White House Open Government Initiative, summarized on the White House blog the highlights of a  recent Prize Summit organized by the Office of Science and Technology Policy and some of the major players in the world of big prizes. “Leaders from over thirty Federal agencies have come to learn about how to incorporate prizes and incentive-backed challenges into their work of addressing complex policy problems,” Noveck reported.  The summit helped agencies learn more about the benefits of prizes while setting forth guidelines, like this one from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB): “A prize should not be an end in itself, but one means within a broader strategy for spurring private innovation and change.”

Hold the phone. What if one IS looking for an end in itself, such as an immediate solution to the oil spill? Read full post.

  • Innovation in any endeavor can be driven using either the “push” or “pull” paradigm. The most common “push” is exemplified by the current funding mechanism in science, grants. Whether from the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH) or any of a myriad of governmental funding agencies, driving research via this method of “pushing the cart up the hill” is slow, arduous and full of bureaucracy! It’s a time honored tradition in the academic world for sure though! The “pull” mechanism of prizes, however, is less common and appears to be useful as an incentive for actual innovation- as evidenced with its presented historical development! One really novel prize not mentioned above is the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) “One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge” to weed out pseudoscientific claims! (See http://www.randi.org for details) Psychologically, people respond to spontaneous incentives like “prizes” and “awards” more so than constant incentives like allowances for doing chores- believe me, I am fighting that battle on the home-front with my kids!

    Whatever mechanism works- my bet is on the “pull” method with prizes and awards- it’s clear some lubricating of the wheels of the proverbial cart is needed and the Spradlin’s Emergency Response 2.0 project may very well be what’s needed to get this Gulf oil problem handled more expediently!

  • Innovation in any endeavor can be driven using either the “push” or “pull” paradigm. The most common “push” is exemplified by the current funding mechanism in science, grants. Whether from the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH) or any of a myriad of governmental funding agencies, driving research via this method of “pushing the cart up the hill” is slow, arduous and full of bureaucracy! It’s a time honored tradition in the academic world for sure though! The “pull” mechanism of prizes, however, is less common and appears to be useful as an incentive for actual innovation- as evidenced with its presented historical development! One really novel prize not mentioned above is the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) “One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge” to weed out pseudoscientific claims! (See http://www.randi.org for details) Psychologically, people respond to spontaneous incentives like “prizes” and “awards” more so than constant incentives like allowances for doing chores- believe me, I am fighting that battle on the home-front with my kids!

    Whatever mechanism works- my bet is on the “pull” method with prizes and awards- it’s clear some lubricating of the wheels of the proverbial cart is needed and the Spradlin’s Emergency Response 2.0 project may very well be what’s needed to get this Gulf oil problem handled more expediently!

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