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Concerning Federally Sponsored Inducement Prizes in Engineering and Science (1999)

Chapter: Potential Objectives of Inducement Prize Contests

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Suggested Citation:"Potential Objectives of Inducement Prize Contests." National Research Council. 1999. Concerning Federally Sponsored Inducement Prizes in Engineering and Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9724.
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Potential Objectives of Inducement Prize Contests

Workshop participants identified a broad range of objectives—scientific, technological, and societal—that federally sponsored or administered inducement prize contests both have been and might be designed to advance. The following list elaborates several more generic objectives that the workshop steering committee considered particularly worthy of consideration. The first two of these elaborate objectives follow directly from the comparative strengths of prize contests enumerated above—identifying new sources of ideas and innovation, and educating and inspiring the public.

  • Identify and engage nontraditional participants and unorthodox approaches to challenges. As discussed earlier, by lowering barriers to entry, prize contests may broaden the pool of potential contributors and ideas attracted to a given challenge or area of research. For example, the CATS Prize contest, by setting performance objectives perceived to be within the range of possibility of a significant number of contestants (two-kilogram payload placed 200 kilometers or higher into space by 8 November 2000), and by offering a prize scoped to the anticipated level of investment needed to compete ($250,000) that would allow the winner to earn a profit on their investment, has attracted a number of nontraditional players and approaches to its challenge. One could imagine a prize contest posing a “dual-use” (defense and commercial) technology challenge with a large enough prize to encourage individuals or firms to cross their traditional disciplinary, technology, or industry boundaries to apply new or existing knowledge from one area to challenges in another.

The field of robotics also offers examples of prize contests that attract a broad range of contestants and competing ideas. The American Association of Artificial Intelligence sponsors contests at its summer meetings; the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers has promoted “micro-mouse” contests for nearly 10 years; and the RoboCup Federation sponsors robotic soccer games each year, which, according to its entry form, are “open to anyone interested in science and technology related to RoboCup.”18

  • Educate and inspire the public. While not asserted as a first-order objective of inducement prize contests—which are, by definition, designed to induce effort by contestants aimed at achieving a specific technical or other performance objective —education and inspiration of the public is usually a major secondary objective of all prize contests. As noted earlier, the public is likely to understand the visible aspects of some prize contests better than laboratory-based work funded by grants and contracts. Through publicity and public demonstrations, such as displays of competing aerial robotic systems, inducement prize contests may fire the imaginations of both contest observers and participants. They could also stimulate much-needed communication between the scientific community and nonscientists by inviting public participation. Indeed, by celebrating and publicizing outstanding scientific or technological achievements, big technical or societal challenges, or the triumphs of individuals, inducement and recognition prize contests alike may attract young people to study or pursue careers in engineering or science, and may also inspire support from the public and policymakers for research or technology objectives. As noted above, recent space prizes such as the X

Suggested Citation:"Potential Objectives of Inducement Prize Contests." National Research Council. 1999. Concerning Federally Sponsored Inducement Prizes in Engineering and Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9724.
×

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

Suggested Citation:"Potential Objectives of Inducement Prize Contests." National Research Council. 1999. Concerning Federally Sponsored Inducement Prizes in Engineering and Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9724.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Potential Objectives of Inducement Prize Contests." National Research Council. 1999. Concerning Federally Sponsored Inducement Prizes in Engineering and Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9724.
×
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