Using contests for good

I love this: Richard Branson offers a $25m prize to the scientist that finds a way to reduce greenhouse gas. People love a good contest.

I remember my disappointment, as a child, that my new chemistry set required the user to actually read the directions and therefore sat is a box. So I am guessing that my opportunity to win the big prize probably passed me by long ago.

It's no secret that I watch a lot of reality TV. Most of it is focused on the idea of "normal" people in unusual circumstances persevering to win (Amazing Race, Survivor, etc). So the concept of mobilizing incredibly talented scientists similarly is fascinating to me. If people will endure a couple of months locked in a house to win $500K, what will scientists do for 25 mil?

I suppose that you could say that the scientists that could solve the problem are likely already focused on it. But some of the side effects of the announcement may be an increased awareness of the issue, getting students more interested in scientific pursuits (especially those that impact the environment) and renewing a sense of excitement about the issue in the scientific community.

I'd love to think that some day soon, someone in a lab coat will be stepping up to collect an over sized check.

Comments (8)

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  1. Ben says:

    Actually, Richard is just jumping on the bandwagon.  This sounds alot like the CEO of GoldCorp and his ‘Find Our Gold’ contest, or even more so, InnoCentive (  Kudos to Richard though for offering such a rich reward to solve such a critical problem.

    It’s more and more about using Open Source methodologies to solve problems these days.  Why limit yourself to who you can hire when anyone in the world can help you solve a problem?

  2. HeatherLeigh says:

    Yeah, but I give him credit for putting his money toward it.

    I don’t think that the solution is necessarily "open source". I don’t think he is asking a bunch of different scientists to share their research and work on it together. He’s asking them to compete for the money. Maybe I need to go back and review the article again.

  3. Ben says:

    It’s not true Open Source in the IT sense, but it is similar to the GoldCorp and Innocentive models of opening up the problem to whoever in the world can solve it, and offering a hefty reward to boot.

    It is good to see philanthropists like Branson and Gates investing heavily in such noble causes.

  4. HeatherLeigh says:

    AH, gotcha. And I agree that it’s good to see.

  5. RJD says:

    Plant more trees.

    And I’ll take that as an EFT, to save the paper.

  6. Paul Pajo says:

    I’d like to think that there is "a scientist" who can work on something amazing on his own like what Andrew Wiles did with the FLT or what Bram Cohen did with bittorrent – sometimes when there’s a lot of scientist working on something, the results are incremental instead of getting a WOW! result.

  7. Tim says:

    I hope you’re right that this extra attention to the problem of global warming might help to try to and abate it.

    Scientists have said for years that it was happening, but the politicians and businessmen seem to have made sure those facts weren’t heard properly by us. (My mother, for one, still doesn’t believe it’s true.)

    Maybe this contest, as well as the paper from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declaring "with 90 percent certainty" that global warming is man made, will help all of us wake up to that fact. Then we can make sure our government and businesses do, too.

    Too heavy for 9am?

  8. HeatherLeigh says:

    Tim – nah, not too heavy. I have family members with a similar perspective to your mom’s. They need to hear it from someone they feel is on "their side"…someone they can’t dismiss. Hopefully we are getting there. From what I understand, Al Gore, isn’t the "their side" guy.

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