Prize and the CATS Prize have clear goals to educate the public and mobilize public opinion. Similarly, the most prestigious recognition prizes in medicine, the Lasker Awards, were explicitly designed both to publicly celebrate the achievements of outstanding medical researchers, and, by publicizing these achievements, to induce additional support for medical research by private and public agencies.19

  • Stimulate nascent or “stalled” technologies. Prize contests might be used to stimulate the development of potentially useful technologies that lack robust commercial or federal agency sponsorship. Examples could include development of “hummingbird”-style wings for aircraft, or robotic “mice” that could run a maze in a given time. Similarly, NASA has expressed interest in flying a small, low-cost airplane on Mars to celebrate the centenary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight.20 However, there is currently no funding available for a full-scale agency program. A contest endorsed and administered by the space agency might invoke innovative proposals for the Mars airplane and focus public attention on an exciting aspect of space exploration. The winning entry might either be a new technology or a new application of an existing technology. While there may be presently no application “pull” for such technologies (i.e., there is no pressing need for a mouse to run mazes), several workshop participants noted that the “proof of concept” value of prize contests may extend far beyond the finish line.

  • “Stretch” existing technologies by demonstrating their usefulness. Two such achievements, stimulated by prizes in the 1990s, were nonstop flights around the globe, one in an airplane and one in a balloon. While neither victory depended on new technologies, both provided dramatic demonstrations of advanced technologies and extensive publicity for aerospace as an exciting field to enter or support. In the same way, the aviation prizes of the early twentieth century, including the Oertig prize won by Charles Lindbergh, provided powerful impetus to existing aviation technologies.

  • Foster technology diffusion. For example, the Super Efficient Refrigerator Prize (SERP), organized by a coalition of electric utility companies to advance refrigeration technologies, promoted the diffusion of the winning technology by awarding the prize money on the basis of units (refrigerators) sold. 21 The winner was Whirlpool Corporation. Ultimately, the market for Whirlpool's super-efficient refrigerator did not materialize and the company was only able to collect a fraction of the prize money. Nevertheless, Whirlpool's achievement allowed the government to set high but realistic new energy efficiency standards for appliances, providing further impetus to the development and diffusion of energy-efficient technologies.

  • Address neglected or seemingly intractable societal problems. Prize contests might be used to attract new, unorthodox, or low-cost technical approaches or solutions to aspects of large societal problems that seem intractable or offer no obvious economic incentive to the private sector. The workshop participants identified several examples of such large, complex challenges as being potentially addressable via prize contests in science and technology, including adult illiteracy, air pollution, hidden explosives and buried mines, solid and nuclear waste disposal, independent living systems for the elderly, and violent crime. A government-backed prize contest with objectives closely linked to such

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement