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Mega-Cash Prizes and Revolutionary Science 134

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the big-piles-of-cash-often-motivate-people dept.
Bruce G Charlton writes "A new paper in Medical Hypotheses suggests that very big cash prizes could specifically be targeted to stimulate 'revolutionary' science. Usually, prizes tend to stimulate 'applied' science — as in the most famous example of Harrison's improved clock solving the 'longitude' problem. But for prizes successfully to stimulate revolutionary science the prizes need to be: 1. Very large (and we are talking seven figure 'pop star' earnings, here) to compensate for the high risk of failure when tackling major scientific problems, 2. Awarded to scientists at a young enough age that it influences their behavior in (about) their mid-late twenties — when they are deciding on their career path, and: 3. Include objective and transparent scientometric criteria, to prevent the prize award process being corrupted by 'political' incentives. Such mega-cash prizes, in sufficient numbers, might incentivize some of the very best young scientists to make more ambitious, long-term — but high-risk — career choices. The real winner of this would be society as a whole; since ordinary science can successfully be done by second-raters — but only first-rate scientists can tackle the toughest scientific problems."
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Mega-Cash Prizes and Revolutionary Science

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  • Finally! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 08, 2008 @12:18PM (#22687136)
    A lottery for people who ARE good at math!
    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      i want hookers... a lot of them.
    • Re:Finally! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by fastest fascist (1086001) on Saturday March 08, 2008 @12:21PM (#22687156)
      And the real losers, presumably, would be the scientists who took the gamble and failed.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by jshackney (99735)
        Such is the reality of life anywhere.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward
          No, trying is a valid and valuable effort, even if you're not the best, the first, the greatest, but to realize that, you have to have evolved into a social being. It is not only immoral but also deeply uneconomic to make gigantic rewards dependent on chance, as is the case whenever the winner is only marginally better than the closest competitors, but only he is rewarded. The idea behind giving people more money when they achieve great things is twofold: Attract more people, thus increasing the chances tha
      • That's life ... and the only alternative is to make everybody as miserable as the worst losers in society. Just look at Cuba and Zimbabwe etc.
      • by umghhh (965931)
        Failure is not really a failure if it taught us something. There is also a possibility to discover new things even if missing the target at the same time. After all Columbus sailed out to discover the path to India.
      • The real losers are the people who would have benefited from any other research those scientists would have done instead.

        A proof on why we should expect the world has a high probability of being WORSE off with these rewards will come soon. Right now I gotta pay some bills.
  • by davidwr (791652) on Saturday March 08, 2008 @12:20PM (#22687148) Homepage Journal
    Restricting mega-prizes to the young may eliminate groundbreaking work by mid-career and early-second-career scientists.

    Not only that, but it sends the wrong message to our children: Once you hit 30 you aren't worth as much.
    • by plopez (54068) on Saturday March 08, 2008 @12:41PM (#22687254) Journal
      Seriously, this is blatant ageism. You never know who will solve the problems at hand. Also, what they are speaking of sounds like 'big science' (i.e. seven figure prizes). Wouldn't older and more experienced scientists be better at organizing larger projects? Wouldn't they have the experience needed to mentor younger scientists, opening up a pipeline for the next generation?

      Bad idea. It should be open to any and all.
      • by Opportunist (166417) on Saturday March 08, 2008 @12:58PM (#22687322)
        But it would sure open a market for young scientists. Imagine an ad akin to "Wanted: Young scientist, doesn't need to know jack but must be under 25 so we can cash in. Job perks include having a great invention named after you, since you'll officially be the one who discovered it".
      • by Bowling Moses (591924) on Saturday March 08, 2008 @03:31PM (#22688104) Journal
        Yeah it's ageism. Regardless of that fact, it's also targeting the wrong age group. There are awards in science for "young investigators" to recognize achievement (ie provide funding) and also to recognize that a scientist who's been in the field for 20-40 years has a name and a better chance at getting the increasingly scarce funding. So I guess in limited forms ageism might not necessarily be a bad thing. However, those "young investigator" awards are for people who are typically 10 years older than what this prize is for. That's what I really don't get. A scientist in their mid 20's is a junior to mid-level Ph.D. student. One in their late 20's might have just got their Ph.D. You only have some control over your career at this very early stage. You decide broadly what area of research you want to work in and what lab to join (if you're extremely good it'll be entirely up to you). After that, you might have the pick of a small number of projects. Very few grad students are advanced enough to introduce a project of their own to a lab and a negligible number of them will actually get permission from their advisor. Someone who has a Ph.D. already but wants to broaden their range of expertise will join another scientist's lab in a related field and will usually introduce new techniques and projects to that lab. Without being able to read the /.'d article it seems like they should be targeting the late 20's to mid-30's scientists. Even then, a more appropriate award might be at most low six figures. Managing a seven-figure grant is a major chore and it would be expected to run a whole lab for several years.
      • by morcego (260031)

        Seriously, this is blatant ageism.

        More than that. It is plain stupidity. If someone is to receive the prize during their mid/late-twenties, and these are long term projects, what are we talking about here ? 18yo scientist ? They might be brilliant, but serious lack experience. Also, we have to consider the "productive" life of a scientist (I know, the expression sucks), which usually goes all the way to the late-sixties (or even more).

        On the other hand, I agree the prize should be given in a relatively shor

    • by ShakaUVM (157947) on Saturday March 08, 2008 @01:40PM (#22687542) Homepage Journal
      Worse, as the summary says: "...very best young scientists to make more ambitious, long-term -- but high-risk -- career choices"

      And they'll do this only by awarding the mega-prize to people who make the breakthrough.

      It's like expecting smart people to want to play the lottery. It's smart people don't base a career on a 0.1% chance of making $1M, with a 99.9% chance of $0. They might do it if it's easy enough to do in their garage on their free time (i.e., the lottery ticket is free), but it's too risky to expect smart people that understand math to enter as a career field.

      On the contrary, just expanding NSF funding for researchers in the specific direction, with smaller prizes for specific endeavors, is probably the best way to go. I might not have ever left college (I was a researcher for years) if the pay was good and I had an interesting task to solve.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      Once you hit 30 you aren't worth as much.

      When you are speaking of making a major contribution to the world, it's true. If you are over 30 and you aren't a shining star in your field, you never will be. Pascal wrote "Pascal's Theorem" at 16. [] Ben Franklin was writing noted newspaper articles at 15. [] Louise Braille invented writing for the blind at age 15. [] Alexander Graham Bell was working with mechanical speech at age 16. [] Westinghouse was 19 when he patented a rotary steam engine. [] Farnsworth had the first []
      • by Jizzbug (101250)
        And at age 27, and only 3 days ago, I discovered the most efficient prime number sieve and the pattern for the distribution of primes within the natural number system! Here I come, mega-cash!
      • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward
        Einstein was in his early 30's when he created GR (36 in 1915).

        It is true that genius tends to show itself before 20, which is the only thing your examples prove. It is less true that it tends not to achieve anything after 30, which seems to be what you want your examples to prove, and which they do not address at all.

        • Do established geniuses need a prize to fund their work?
          When Einstein created GR he was also director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics. By age 40 Gates was a billionaire. By 27 Ben Franklin was publishing "Poor Richard's Almanac". Every one of my examples had plenty of backers (or no longer needed them) by the time they were in their mid-thirties. Well established geniuses have the Noble prize. IFA This new idea is for a prize for the budding genius, and geniuses always start budding before age
      • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Pascal wrote "Pascal's Theorem" at 16. Not science, maths

        Ben Franklin was writing noted newspaper articles at 15. Not science, literature

        Louise Braille invented writing for the blind at age 15. Not science, technology

        Alexander Graham Bell was working with mechanical speech at age 16. Not science, technology

        Westinghouse was 19 when he patented a rotary steam engine. Not science, technology

        Farnsworth had the first steps towards a working television built and working at age 19. Not science, technology


      • by DerekLyons (302214) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (retawriaf)> on Saturday March 08, 2008 @04:05PM (#22688294) Homepage

        So in the realm of groundbreaking works: If you are over 30 and no breakthroughs has surfaced so far then likely they never will.

        Of course, that's based on the unsupported assumption that science is only valuable when it's "ground breaking".
      • "If you are over 30 and no breakthroughs has surfaced so far then likely they never will."

        I have heard that argument before, and indeed it does seem that revolutionary ideas usually come at an early age, still there are plenty of exceptions such as Newton who wrote the principa at ~40.

        I really don't think money aimed at 'picking winners' will have any effect on the rate of revolutionary ideas, they are 'once in a lifetime' bursts of inspiration. That's not to say that spending a bit of cash to encoura
    • by Jizzbug (101250)
      I have just discovered the secret of numerology and the matrix it forms to predict the distribution of primes and semiprimes within the natural number system. I now have several simple and efficient algorithms that calculate "prime number candidates" out to infinity. ALL of the primes and MANY of the semiprimes are recovered by the pattern of octet candidate grouping. I think this may also be the generalization that relates the Zeta functions and Dirichlet series.

      Where's my Mega-Cash prize for Revolution
    • Old people get all the grant money anyway. There are many things that require decades of rigorous work to get right, but coming up with radically fresh ideas is not one of them.

      I imagine that this could work if it was more like a generalized version of google's summer of code. High school and undergrads for the most part love that competitive stimulus. They need to worry less about the problems given to them by their teachers and professors, and start looking at the cutting edge problems facing the world
    • by Oktober Sunset (838224) <sdpage103@ y a h> on Saturday March 08, 2008 @03:29PM (#22688096)
      On the other hand, I doubt many young people would be inspired to go into a career in scientific research by the thought of winning vast wealth and fame at the age of 75.
    • by Vornzog (409419) on Saturday March 08, 2008 @04:44PM (#22688474)

      Restricting mega-prizes to the young may eliminate groundbreaking work by mid-career and early-second-career scientists.

      Not only that, but it sends the wrong message to our children: Once you hit 30 you aren't worth as much.

      I don't think this point can be over emphasized enough in this discussion.

      The author is aiming this prize at me. I went to college on a academic full ride, cranked through a PhD in chemistry in 4 years on a hot project that got national media attention, and am currently trying to figure out what my career is going to be. I'm 27, which is extremely young for a PhD.

      I am the wrong person to aim this at. You want to throw money at someone, you need to be targeting my PhD adviser. She has connections that I can't dream of, a funding rate that is basically unheard of, deserves a big chunk of credit for my success, has published major work in two very different fields, and, most importantly, she's currently in the prime of her career - age 45. She has now left the university and started a company - it's the only way for her career to continue to move forward with the grant situation as bad as it is right at the moment.

      It takes a very long time to establish yourself as a superstar in the world of science. Nobody does it by age 30. The best of the best, with all of the breaks going their way, might do it by 35 - with the caveat that they have to specialize to such an extent that they can't even consider going after a big prize like this unless it is perfectly suited to their field. And unless you are already a on the path to becoming a superstar, you won't get a sniff of big money like we are discussing here.

      Better yet - don't throw that money at anyone at all. Inevitably, some of it would stick, but far more resources would be wasted competing for it.

      I'm rocking the boat in a localized fashion right now. I'm making a name for myself by being the programming/database guy in a room full of biologists. I'm don't have to the smartest guy in the room - I have access to an entirely different set of tools than anyone else does, and I can communicate with the biologists in ways that a normal programmer would never be able to, allowing me to make a huge impact fresh off of my PhD.

      If you really want see progress made, without the high risk/high reward gambles, look to make progress in the gaps between fields. Engineers collaborating with traditional academic scientists. PhDs in two major fields, instead of just one. Collaborative projects between industry and government, academia and industry. Corporate think tanks like we used to have - really good R&D in industry is hard to come by these days, but many of our best advancements in the last 50 years came from these sorts of institutions. Improved math/comp sci training for scientists and engineers (I don't care how much you had, more would probably have done you good). A major, national-involvement project to tackle, on par with putting a man on the moon - real renewable energy looks like a good candidate right now.

      This is the future of America, and most of the rest of the first world. We have outsourced our blue-collar jobs, the white-collar jobs are slowly going international, and our high standard of living looks unattractive when someone in India will do your job for half the cost, even if they only do it half as well.

      The way forward is to move faster, drive innovation, reward the people that are superstars (regardless of age) with incentive packages that make them want to work harder. America has had this sort of system in place a few times before in history, and we have attracted the best and the brightest, both domestic and foreign, to get involved and make huge strides in many fields. Progress is made on the margins - any attempt to maintain the status quo or fund a regression to the mean kills us slowly. Throwing big money at science keeps mediocre talent in, wasting resources, when they should throw in the towel and move on to

      • by khallow (566160)

        Better yet - don't throw that money at anyone at all. Inevitably, some of it would stick, but far more resources would be wasted competing for it.
        I guess you don't understand the point. Of course, that will happen. That's why they're doing it!
    • Even worse we often have no idea whether work done by young scientists really is ground breaking until long after the work is published. For example Peter Higgs published his Higgs mechanism in 1964. It is now 2008 and we still do not know whether it is how the universe works or just a very beautiful, but misleading, distraction.

      With a scheme like this Higgs would miss out on what is, potentially, one of the most important breakthroughs of the 20th century. If it is an international prize there will also be
  • Disagree (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ceoyoyo (59147) on Saturday March 08, 2008 @12:21PM (#22687152)
    The prize system works fairly well for engineering because at the end you have the prize, a product you can sell, and a whole bunch of publicity. Corporations are interested in investing in that.

    Science, particularly basic science, is different. Corporations are not nearly as interested in investing in something that won't develop into a product in the foreseeable future. For basic science you need money to replace the corporate sponsors: money up front. There are plenty of young scientists who will happily do great research, they just need some funding to get started. The granting agencies are the ones who have to be trained to take more (intelligent) risks.
    • I was about to say the same thing - the real problem is getting grants to fund the research. If the problem is interesting (to scientists anyhow) finding someone to work on it isn't all that hard.
    • What do you need a product for? In the current crazy climate of patenting, you could patent the underlying principle!

      Just imagine you had the patent for lasers. Or radar.
      • by ceoyoyo (59147)
        Those are both examples of applications. Suppose you could have patented quantum mechanics in the early part of last century. You still wouldn't have made any money until at least the transistor was invented, forty years later, and no company, at least not one of today's companies would be interested in such a risky, long term investment.
    • No the prize system works better for basic science. With it being a product you can sell, most of the time scientists won't even attempt something that won't make a profit unless they can get government agencies to buy into it. Now we can offer prizes to get things that aren't profitable done quicker.
      • by ceoyoyo (59147)
        And how are these scientists supposed to fund themselves while they're doing the research, before winning the prize? The X Prize worked because private access to space has some profit potential, so some big investors got on board. You're not going to encourage some 18 year old might-be-scientists to decide to go into science by telling them that they can starve for ten years THEN win a prize.
    • Harrison's clocks were engineering achievements, not scientific. In fact, the scientific work was done by the astronomers who came up with the competing solution. The way the story is told by Dava Sobel is quite biased (it began badly with an unfair attack on Cloudesley Shovel, and after that I wasn't too surprised.) The scientific solution - star and planet tables and the method of using them - had the advantage that it relied on relatively cheap technology - paper and sextant/telescope - while the chronom
      • by ceoyoyo (59147)
        You bring up the other problem with a prize system. Science goes a LOT faster when you collaborate. I know that first hand. If you're in a race for a prize, particularly a long term race, then you're going to spend all your time trying NOT to let anybody else figure out what you're doing. Sharing results is going to be the last thing on your mind.

        Prizes are okay for short term engineering challenges because widespread collaboration is much less important.
  • Opertunity Cost? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DavidShor (928926) <{supergeek717} {at} {}> on Saturday March 08, 2008 @12:27PM (#22687182) Homepage
    Perhaps it's not efficient, from a societal point of view, to have thousands of the most brilliant people in the world doing duplicate work? Consider how much better society would be if they were each individually working on something different.

    Not only that, but keep in mind that these bright people were going to do something else before they decided to take up the prize. Is the US economy better off because a genius physicist came up with a lunar robot, when he would have discovered a new type of nuclear fusion had he not worked on the prize?

    • by quanticle (843097)

      Consider how much better society would be if they were each individually working on something different.

      Consider how much faster progress could be made if there were incentives encouraging a large number of our best minds to all focus on the most pressing issues of the day.

      • How do we define the most pressing issues of the day? We have a finite number of bright minds, how do we best allocate them to the various things we need researched?

        For short/intermediate term research on things that are easily patentable, that is an easy question. The most valuable research is almost always that which makes the most money to the firm that "owns" the discovery, and rational scientists will work toward discovering the most valuable things that they can(Public heath and environmental techno

        • "...because a genius physicist came up with a lunar robot, when he would have discovered a new type of nuclear fusion..."

          You seem to have priorities.
    • by grommit (97148)
      First of all, the prize is for things like developing a new type of fusion. Building a lunar robot is a very specific goal for which we already have lots of contests. The prizes mentioned in this article are for big picture things that benefit huge numbers of people.

      Also, there is one way to eliminate duplication of effort. At a young age children are given aptitude tests and educated appropriately to enhance their strengths. When they come of age, they are assigned a research topic and work on it for a
  • []
    - link has background on the invention of a better watch to solve the longitude problem.
    I recently finally read Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, where there's a plot line involving
    the creation of the longitude prize. It took about 50 years longer than expected to be claimed.
  • A pile of hoopla (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sam_handelman (519767) <.skh2003. .at.> on Saturday March 08, 2008 @12:33PM (#22687216) Homepage Journal
    Firstly, science is a gradual process. The "great man" theory of scientific progress has no more merit than the "great man" theory of history. It is in fact *not* true that those who make the very most important discoveries are better than other scientists (The fools! They mocked my research!), and their advances, even when seemingly revolutionary, are predicated on the gradual accumulation of knowledge through careful, thoughtful and reproducible work. This does not mean that all scientists are equally competent, or that financial or political concerns do not sometimes promote inferior scientists.

      Secondly, those best qualified to decide which avenues of research will bear fruit are those doing the science, not someone with prize money. Not only are we best qualified to decide what to do - we are best qualified to decide that we are the ones to do it. You may think that one of those young engineers doing successful, and, yes, profitable work on reducing power consumption in laptops could have made super-rope for a space elevator instead, and there are individuals for whom this is true (see next point,) but most of the time, people at this level of skill and education pursue the questions that interest them, and on which they have some confidence that they can usefully contribute. If we were in this for the money we'd have had MBAs in half the time it took to get the PhD.

      Now, there is a legitimate problem. You can get private money to fund research in applied science, but the government (or some agency which does not expect any return on each, individual investment) has to fund basic research, for basically the reasons stated in the article. This does not mean we need huge "prizes". What we need are grants - which are in short supply at the moment thanks, and I'm willing to be partisan because the facts are brazenly clear in this case, to the stupid, short-sighted and wasteful policies of the current administration.
    • by hey! (33014)
      While I agree with you, there is a kernel of truth (as there almost always is) in the Great Man model.

      Also, status and recognition are very important motivators.

      And we mustn't forget the egos of the donors, who'd much rather have their name associated with a big time award than a useful fund that doles out modest amounts of money to deserving proposals.

      So let me suggest a new kind of prize, that recognizes the author of major scientific results, and comes with a massive cash award which he must give away as
    • Grants are decided by congressional funding. Democrats have had a majority for how long now? Grants have been plentiful but they are always tied political means. Want to get funded to study chemical interactions in the ionosphere? Tie it to climate change. Who cares that we're talking much higher than the thermal sphere where the green house effect is. Put in a few one liners and hopefully nobody notices. Government money always has strings attached. Long term research grants have been declining since the f
    • Although my current career is software development, which may or may not be considered engineering depending upon one's point of view, I feel compelled to comment on a couple of the points which you have made regarding the availability of grant money and who is in the best position to decide these things.

      There is a baisc premise underlying you views concerning who should choose what is researched and where the funding should come from and it is the same view of all people who advocate socialism or social
      • by protobion (870000)
        Your point is well-made. And as a Scientist myself, I do not believe that a party(even a scientific one) should be able to unilaterally how much money and for what purpose it gets its money from society for.

        However, the basic premise in the current system is that society attributes some value to the contribution of the scientific community. It trusts it scientists to work on problems that affect the average user, and to increase the standard of living. The average person and the scientist are not supposed t
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Metasquares (555685)
        The alternative is that we all patent our basic discoveries and prevent anyone else from building upon or using them without paying a fee. I don't really like that alternative. You couldn't have built things like the web on that sort of model; too many inventions are involved and too many people would be seeking remuneration for them.
      • by Goldsmith (561202)
        As a scientist with a similar view of the government, I have struggled over why the government supports science and not private industry (while it's true that some basic research is done by industry, the vast majority is government sponsored).

        The answer I have come up with is that government funded scientific research really amounts to a subsidy of private industry. Rather than Bell Labs or IBM paying for the next generation of materials research (as was done in the past), it's being done by academics at v
      • Finally I find posting really worthy of mod points and I'm without any :-(. Terrific posting.
      • by kmac06 (608921)
        Yeah I totally understand where you're coming from. I'm a "young scientist" (been in a PhD physics program for a couple years), and I'm not sure I could stomach a career in standard academia, where I'm begging the government for money every year.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by bit01 (644603)

        or more precisely, the spending of the money of others

        Fruitcakes like you really need to grow up.

        Your taxes being spent on something you don't like is much the same as you being a minority shareholder in a company and the majority shareholders deciding to take the company in a direction you don't like.

        Except in the case of a democratic government it's one man, one vote, not one dollar, one vote.

        In both cases you can try to get sufficient votes to change the direction of the organization. In both

        • Fruitcakes like you really need to grow up.

          Ad-hominem [], the first resort of the childish. Perhaps you should take your own advice, sir.

          Your taxes being spent on something you don't like is much the same as you being a minority shareholder in a company and the majority shareholders deciding to take the company in a direction you don't like.

          Except that I not compelled to associate in the first place with corporations or invdividuals with whom I do not wish to or if I no longer wish to be a part of an association, of shareholders for instance, then I can sell my shares and depart.

          Except in the case of a democratic government it's one man, one vote, not one dollar, one vote.

          In principal yes, but in practice the dollar and the vote are very nearly the same thing these days. If one has sufficient resources and is willing to spend them then just ab

    • by ShakaUVM (157947)
      The great man theory of science is true, it just somewhat discounts the impact of luck. People who discount the great man theory place too much emphasis on the luck.

      Truth is, you need both luck and talent.

      Any number of petri dishes had been contaminated by the year that Fleming his "breakthrough" on penicillin. It took a person with the sort of curiosity to go, "Hmm, that's odd -- I wonder why?" when he got his lucky (or unlucky... it ruined his experiment) break.
      • Obviously, some individual person did discover penicillin, and Einstein did himself personally figure out relativity.

          The question is - if we want more such grand advances, do we want to cultivate more Great Men who can make them, or do we want to cultivate the countless minor advances, not to mention dead ends and often informative failed experiments, etc. etc., on which their work was predicated?

          I would say the latter.
        • But not at the expense of the former!

          When you elevate mediocrity to the stature of greatness, you lose the ability to discover and nurture greatness. There are some discoveries mediocre scientists will never make because they require too much of a leap from the known into the unknown. You can throw as many mediocre scientists as you'd like at that problem; it will never be solved until someone great comes along because it requires a new way of looking at things.

  • Just make sure the prize doesn't absolutely have to be awarded each and every year, like the Nobel Prize. Just reward the stuff that's actually revolutionary. Those thing don't come along that often.
  • Clay not enough? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Coryoth (254751) on Saturday March 08, 2008 @12:37PM (#22687238) Homepage Journal
    Well the Clay Mathematics Institute [] is currently offering seven figure sums for seven different math problems []. I can't say that much of a dent has been made on most of those problems. In fact the only solved problem had the solver (Perelman) turn down the cash. Perhaps $1 million isn't enough -- compared to the prize for solving the longitude problem, adjusted for inflation, it's pretty small. Perhaps we should be talking about 8 figure sums? If we can pay an actor $20 million dollars to appear in a film, is it really that bad to pay a researcher (or team of researchers) $20 million for solving the Hodge conjecture, or proving P!=NP?
    • by popmaker (570147)
      Or maybe they are misjudging those so-called great scientists. There is no doubt in my mind that Perelman would have turned down any sum of money they would have handed him. People like that simply aren't (and this might sound hard to grasp) interested in money. I think that kind of people wants just enough money to be able to work on his or her project without having to worry about those pesky little things like food, apartments, the gear needed for the research, etc. A better incentive would be to offer p
  • I did "STFA" (S = Skim) but didn't really see a nice list of what kind of topics are suggested. Or are they saying, "come up with something mega awesome and we will give you money" perhaps? If so that's like a perpetual motion "designer" dream isn't it? :^)

    Seems to be that younger scientists are by nature full of interesting and "outside the box" ideas. Money won't push them to do cool stuff unless it's to get them free of some of the limitations of academia.
  • by isdnip (49656) on Saturday March 08, 2008 @12:41PM (#22687256)
    This is a really stupid proposal. It is like the lottery, which promises big payoffs but is really a tax on people who are bad at math. Most people lose. If there were mega-prizes for science, then people would have to decide whether to go for the big prize, knowing that there's a >99% chance of getting zilch, or doing something more likely to pay the bills. Do we want to turn science, normally a cooperative exercise, into a casino game?

    On the other hand this idea will go over well among the flat earth crowd. They don't do science, but they think high-stakes prizes are the only way to get out of the trailer park.
    • by Rich0 (548339)
      Actually, it will go over with quite a few scientists. The ones arrogant enough to think that they're far more likely to get the prize than any of the 10,000 other scientists graduating in the same year as them... :)

      Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying all scientists are like this (I have a science degree myself), but it is a VERY common attitude among the academic elite. When I went from a small undergrade college into a large university for grad school I noticed a big difference in the teaching. The lat
    • Science has an uncanny similarity to a lottery game [], in many ways.
    • If you are not calculating monetary expectation of win vs loss, but actual usefulness of win. For very big win which could change quality of life considerably, especially for poor player, expectation of payoff for player in term of usefulness can outweigh expectation of loss.
  • by Animats (122034) on Saturday March 08, 2008 @12:42PM (#22687266) Homepage

    It usually costs more to win such prizes than it's worth.

    • The Kremer Prize for human-powered flight, £50,000, was won by Paul MacReady in 1977. He lost money on the project.
    • The X-Prize (space) paid out $10 million, but cost $100 million to win.
    • The DARPA Grand Challenge paid out $2 million, but the major teams spent far more than that, if the work by corporate sponsors is included.
    • by khallow (566160)

      The X-Prize (space) paid out $10 million, but cost $100 million to win.
      For Scaled Composites, it appears to me that they earned a profit on the matter. Most of the other teams were jokes. And as I see it, a lot of money was squandered that would have been squandered on something else.
  • I think an important argument that can be made to support the 'cash prize theory' can be directly seen with the Netflix Prize [] project. For those unfamiliar, they are offering a $1,000,000 cash reward for the best third-party team/individual that can develop the best algorithm for predicting movie preferences for their users.

    Of course, to a company like Netflix, this may be more of a cost/benefit issue as hiring a team of bright researchers still won't guarantee that even a million in R&D will lead to

  • Seems to me Robert Heinlein came up with a somewhat similar idea in "Methusala's Children". If both your grandparents lived past a certain age, and you married somebody whose grandparents were similarly long-lived, the Methusala Foundation would pay you.

    In either case, it comes down to forking out cash to improve the chances of getting desired results. Certainly not the worst idea I've ever heard.

  • by Iowan41 (1139959) on Saturday March 08, 2008 @01:04PM (#22687360)
    Scientists are motivated by discovery. Fund their -projects- and they will happily work away. I don't believe it will be possible to keep such suggested prizes free from political correctness and Survivor-style political corruption. Who is a first-rater? Who is a second-rater? Edison was a failure. So was Einstein. Especially at the young ages described. One simply never knows who might discover something. DARPA and X-prizes are -far- more effective uses of the money, and models for applying the money.
  • Really big prizes? Hell we'd settle for not being constantly insulted!

    I have plenty of awsome ideas, which would make billions. The average potential backer is way to stupid to understand the simple science that explains how these ideas work. Anyway, in my considerable experience. the powers that be would rather not have any new ideas, and especially not "awesome" ones.

    If anyone is interested in real energy saving systems/machines, I have plenty. I can provide one technology alone which will enable your c

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Iron Condor (964856)

      But in each case, you will need to have control of at least $100M to get the ideas to market.

      A modern oil rig costs a billion dollars. $100M is certainly available as venture capital in various places in the US -- IF you have a real product to show. Which you don't. As can be easily seen in your next sentence:

      (100 fold return of investment no problem - over 10 years).

      If you had ever talked to ONE venture capitalist in your life, you'd know that you don't have to show profit -- if you can break even in year three or four and show that there's a healthy growth potential under the hood, you can get VC money. If the $100M buys a $50M company and provides t

  • I propose finding a way to do away with such crap as "scientometrics".
  • by bperkins (12056) on Saturday March 08, 2008 @01:11PM (#22687396) Homepage Journal
    Do we need to raise the stakes any higher in the pursuit of basic science?

    What budding young scientists need is support to do their research while they haven't produced results, not place a pot of gold at then end of the rainbow.

    If one pursues the academic tract, you need to get into grad school, secure a good advisor, get put on good research, get a decent faculty position, get funding, attract decent grad students and then perform

    The number of people who get this far in challenging fields tends to be very low, and a lots of bright, smart people don't make it.

    The creation of prizes is very attractive for the grant givers, since it allows you to attact many more people than your funding would normally allow, but don't try to convince us that it's a real way of funding science.

    • I agree with your sentiments on this one. It seems that if we want people to focus on fundamental science research as a career, we should put mechanisms in place that allows one to create a decent life and livelihood out of making such a career choice. I don't see how any rational person would take the slim chance of winning such a prize at some point the future over a steady career that pays for a decent home, keeps the spouse happy and puts the kids through college. Fame and fortune is such an intangib
      • I don't see how any rational person would take the slim chance of winning such a prize at some point the future over a steady career that pays for a decent home, keeps the spouse happy and puts the kids through college.

        Id go further id say that i dont want such people in science, giving out pots of gold encourages stuff like 'cold fusion', making life as a sceintist easier would be nice. At the end of the day I (and im fairly certain most scientist are the same) am not in it for the money, more money is more likely to cause more corruption from those that are.

        Increasing funding for scientific education in the US is a much better path to go down as a scientific education grounds you well for many fields, including scienti

  • Government funding politicizes science, there are good examples in every field of good ideas that can't get funding because they are counter to some special interest group, often with the scientific community itself.

    This would be a way of allowing individuals to contribute to directions they personally want or need.

  • As the Negative Nancy, I feel a need to point out that the competition for this prize may doom whatever project that doesn't make it to the million dollar prize. A lot of very big theoretical breakthroughs have occured in the past 100 years and many of them were scoffed at by the scientific community. (Big Bang Theory comes to mind, if I am incorrect) I probably don't know what I'm talking about, again, but I could see financial competition taking a field that is mostly rooted in the whole for the sake of
  • Many billionaires and assorted mega-rich folks contribute a good deal of money to charitable organizations and various foundations. Most of them don't contribute as much as they could stand to, but their support is significant and always welcomed. Bill Gates has given away many millions of dollars, as has Warren Buffett, just as an example of two who have made big news in recent memory. We need to encourage folks like these to continue to support good science and stress the potential impact of scientific br
  • Unless the prizes change the way researchers are taught, throwing money at the problem isn't going to help. Scientists are taught how to make small incremental advances as students. It's a whole different ballgame when you're trying to solve something big.
  • It is called the Nobel price. It is as easy as that. Do some revolutionary science and win a non-neglectable cash price. According to wikipedia last years price was about 1,500,000 USD.
    • by n6kuy (172098)
      Nobel prize doesn't meet the requirements.

      > 3. Include objective and transparent scientometric criteria, to prevent the prize award process
      > being corrupted by 'political' incentives.
  • Most such prizes would probably end up going overseas because of the cheaper labor rates. $100,000 in say India is almost enough to retire for the rest of your life with maids, etc. Thus, the incentive will be much greater for them.
  • The problem with this type of hypothesis is that it fails to recognize the difference that "real" molecular nanotechnology will create. I'm not talking about the "playtime" nanotechnology that the NIH started promoting several years ago. I'm talking the real thing that Drexler, Merkle, Freitas, etc. envision.

    Educating any scientist with a five or ten year horizon without a clear perspective about how much things will shift when MNT arrives is pointless.

    Scientists at IBM recently calculated the force of mov
  • I haven't read the article since it has dropped off the web at the moment. But there are apparently several characteristics that seem to make it largely irrelevant. First, it isn't targeted. I see no indication of a specific goal or accomplishment, just some vague "they gotta do well". IMHO the best prizes have a particular goal (like getting an hour of video from the moon or the oldest mouse) in mind. That is, what someone here calls "engineering" prizes.

    Second, it seems far too small. I gather from the

  • by Goldsmith (561202) on Saturday March 08, 2008 @04:21PM (#22688358)
    If you wanted to provide multi-million dollar prizes for 20-something scientists working on revolutionary research, sign me up. I've obviously been under-paid. But if that money was really available, I would rather it be used to fund revolutionary research, not reward it. Prizes work in a corporate environment, where debt is acceptable. In academic and national lab research, you can't have debt; you can't fund research using loans or investments.

    It is extraordinarily expensive to tackle the big problems, and the vast majority of scientists are not independently wealthy. Do they expect scientists to run up multi-million dollar personal debts on the off chance they get a prize? At my institution, we're trying to get a $20 million grant right now. That's not going to pad our pockets, but it will pay for lots of new equipment and materials. We need large amounts of money to do revolutionary research. Without funding, it doesn't matter it there's a prize out there, we simply can not do what we need to do.

    Why would I, as a scientist, NOT work on the biggest problem I can find, award or no award? These guys suggest that the best scientists choose to work on lesser problems because of greater payoff. They say easier science leads to more papers, more citations and ultimately more peer-reviewed grant funding. They then suggest that we can use the same process to determine if revolutionary research has been done. So is the problem that grant giving institutions are not interested in hard research? That's not been my experience, but I'm in a different field than the authors.

    I think they're complaining more about a culture specific to their specialty (medicine and biology) and less about the culture of science in general. A side effect of the doubling of biomedical research funding a decade ago is that a whole bunch of uncreative people were able to have success. Now that funding has decreased, those people (who perhaps should not be in leadership positions) are a drain on resources. Not having gone through recent turbulence in funding, other areas lack this problem.
  • The requirement for a certain age on a prize is misguided to me. If you want a specific feat of science accomplished, you would have better chances at widening your pool of candidates. An age requirement can only work in math where one's work can be divorced from physical reality. Much discovery in the sciences is made by persistence--so, to limit the age of a prize winner in science selects for people who have good luck at a tender age. It is a lottery in this sense. Prize benefactors: remove age requireme
  • by Rakishi (759894) on Saturday March 08, 2008 @05:45PM (#22688812)
    I once read that the richest people aren't the most intelligent, intelligent people simply don't find the risks needed to become so rich worth it. On average they'd come out worse off and they're intelligent enough that their normal average is still very well off.

    I find it absurd that anyone really intelligent would depend on essentially a lottery for anything. It's absurd because 99% of the time you will simply be wasting your time and could make a lot more money by doing something else.

    Logically the prizes would be pointless like they are now, a company is formed and it's engineers are paid by sponsors/rich people. It's essentially like venture capitalists, they take on the risk and get a decent large chunk of the payoff.
  • IAAS (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Compuser (14899) on Saturday March 08, 2008 @05:53PM (#22688866)
    This may work in disciplines where a singular achievement is key. So prizes for proving a math theorem that stood for a century are quite reasonable and are already done. They do not serve as incentives for scientific effort because the effort is prohibitive intellectually rather than financially. Putting up a prize is just a way of saying: this problem is really important. So if you've got a vision and lots of money but no mad intellectual skillz then by all means, put up a prize.
    However this will not work for basic research in natural sciences (physics, biology, chemistry, etc). The reason is that there are no singular achievements. Experimental measurements are often not trusted until they are repeated by several groups and usually these other groups add key details to the original measurement. Likewise, theories are often explaining the same phenomena from different angles (schrodinger and heisenberg versions of quantum mechanics, Landau and BCS explanations of superconductivity, etc). So large prizes are only likely to sow discord in those communities not foster more productivity.
  • Include objective and transparent scientometric criteria

    Have I just gone to sleep and woken up in the year 3000? This sounds suspiciously like Prof. Hubert "I'm science-ing as fast as I can!" Farnsworth.

    But seriously, there's actually quite a history of prizes in fundamental science such as physics and mathematics. For example, Fourier's work on the series which bear his name was part of a submission for a prize on understanding the propagation of heat. Many other great mathematicians of the 19th centur

  • This paper is not the result of a big prize.
  • by CptPicard (680154) on Saturday March 08, 2008 @10:55PM (#22690162)
    Science has always been a collaborative grind, and is becoming more and more that. In the past, we had a bunch of geniuses that single-handedly took their fields forward, but even those weren't motivated by money to be made, and even they stood on the shoulders of giants... do you really think Newton or Darwin would have been "better" if there had been a huge prize waiting for them? I think not.

    Even those who do get the new major insights in science just... get them -- after a lot of work of course. Sure they deserve accolades and recognition and even money, but I have this strange feeling that just making them win the lottery is somewhat oddly unfair towards those who partake in the noble pursuit but don't get similarly "blessed".

    In the meantime, in order to actually have those flashes occurring in the heads of some young scientists, they need to eat. THAT lures people into science, not taking huge personal risks -- and the intense pressure that comes with it -- with their life. For example I quit thinking about staying in academia when I realized that I would perform poorly if my life really depended on getting great ideas from grant to grant. So science needs to be funded as a whole... you toss a whole lot of them at the wall and see which ones stick. :-)
  • That might not be the best scheme. How about some sort of payout whare the top N finishers split the award. Maybe with a descending payout schedule.

    The single winner scheme may not be the best way to motivate someone who might not be pursuing 'the best' solution, but might contribute something of value nevertheless.

"I'm not afraid of dying, I just don't want to be there when it happens." -- Woody Allen