Since World War II, the federal government has supported research and innovation in engineering and science under two broad objectives. The first has been to harness science and technology in support of federal agency missions in areas such as national security, public health, and environmental protection. The second has been to advance the nation's economic development and general welfare, proceeding from the premise that the advancement of knowledge, in the form of technological change, is a critical driver of growth in per capita national income and of the well-being of society.
In support of these objectives the federal government relies on a range of policy mechanisms. To meet the needs of federal agency missions, the government directly procures research and technology via contracts. In other areas, where the perceived social value of technological advance is potentially very high yet the market forces are weak, the government either directly funds or fosters private-sector funding of research, innovation, and technology diffusion. Here it relies primarily on peer-reviewed research grants, tax and regulatory incentives, intellectual property rights, and technology diffusion programs.
Prize contests that recognize past achievement or induce additional effort by offering a named prize or award have played only a small role in the federal government's science and technology policy portfolio to date. Of these two types of prizes, those that recognize past scientific or technological achievement, such as the Presidential Science and Technology Medals or the Department of Energy's Enrico Fermi Award, have been more prevalent than those that induce technical effort in support of specific goals. Indeed, the Department of Commerce 's Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award contest, which has provided additional incentives to numerous firms to adopt “best practices” in total quality management, is perhaps the only explicit inducement prize contest, i.e., contest for a named prize or award, that is sponsored by the U.S. federal government.5
Nevertheless, there is a history of inducement prize contests, most privately sponsored, and a growing body of research on contests, grants, procurement contracts, and the optimal design of federal R&D programs6 which suggest that it may make sense for the federal government to make more extensive use of explicit inducement prize contests to advance research, technology development, and technology deployment toward specific societal ends. This premise provided the impetus for the 30 April 1999 National Academy of Engineering workshop and the following workshop report, which seeks to open this possibility to discussion by Congress, federal agencies, and the general public.