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Innovation Inducement Prizes: At the National Science Foundation
term ad hoc committee selected for its familiarity with many fields in NSF’s broad portfolio rather than depth of expertise in a single field or few fields. Moreover, the recent experience of DARPA, NASA, and the X-Prize Foundation confirms that choosing prize topics and writing contest rules requires extensive consultation with experts, affected parties, and categories of potential participants to ensure that the prize goals and objectives
relate to important societal needs and opportunities;
embody a significant yet achievable advance over the current state of the art and surpass what would be accomplished in the same time frame in the absence of a contest;
are clear and understandable to the interested community; and
are stated in an objective, unambiguous way so that there is no doubt whether a particular innovation should qualify as the winner.
There are today no experts on this process comparable to, say, the experts at identifying research opportunities, framing solicitations for or evaluating research proposals, or for that matter, designing financial incentives for private R&D spending.
We believe that topics for smaller-scale, more technical and specialized prize contests can be identified by canvassing specialists in various fields, beginning with NSF’s own program managers and peer review panels and incorporating suggestions from scientific and technicalsocieties, federal laboratories, and industrial research managers. Studies identifying research opportunities and priorities in important fields should also be examined for potential prize topics. For a limited number of candidate topics NSF should convene workshops of specialists intimately familiar with the state of the art in the selected fields and related bodies of practice to define a prize objective and criteria for a winning innovation. For the initial set of small-scale prizes recommended, this process can be accomplished within a year so that contests can be announced late in 2007.
For more ambitious prizes a comprehensive systems approach totranslating an important societal need into a coherently designed prizegoal and specific contest objectives could be helpful. The analysis would identify and describe the principal elements of a complex system, such as carbon-neutral energy supply or an educational system, to locate the critical innovations needed to enable substantial improvements and the obstacles holding them back. These innovations would then become candidates for large-scale inducement prizes. This sort of analysis could be carried out by NSF staff or by expert panels convened by NSF or a