Biomedical Research Prizes

Centuries ago the British government offered a monetary prize to anyone who could develop an exact method of determining the longitude of a ship. A British cabinetmaker invented a clock for the purpose and won the £20,000 prize, the first offered for scientific research. Once again, offering a prize for accomplishments in the technical or scientific fields are in vogue. Multimillion dollar prizes offered by the X-Prize Foundation are mainly responsible for the current interest in handing out prizes for projects such as manned spaceflight and DNA sequencing. Now the United States government is coming on board with the Department of Defense and NASA offering prizes for technical goals or advances in research. The National Institutes of Health–the NIH–however, the usual benefactor of biomedical research prizes, has so far not entered the game, although that may change soon.

During a recent meeting on the Bethesda, Maryland campus of the NIH, several private organizations as well as government agencies reported their success with offering research prizes. Those reports spurred speculation as to whether the NIH will begin their own offers of prizes. At this meeting, it was reported that Francis Collins, NIH Director, will sign contracts soon that ensure NIH compliance with the America COMPETES Act. Under this Act, federal agencies are authorized to offer cash to researchers who will take on the harder high-risk projects in research. Although grants exists for such research, it is apparently not enough incentive to entice potential researchers and scientists to spend time on the riskier projects.

The 2007 America COMPETES Act allows Federal agencies to present a problem on Challenge.gov, to research teams or individuals, appraise the results, and award prizes for the best solution. Called incentives research, this was just one subject discussed during the crowdsourcing conference. Participants also looked at other ways to use the power of many willing brains. Tim O’Reilly, media guru, pointed out how the Internet collects massive amounts of information and data. Although not all information is collected in a scientific way, he believes scientists should mine the Internet for the newest and best ideas in this global brain. If cash incentives produce needed solutions, conference attendees felt it is money well spent.