January 30, 2006
X Prize For DNA Sequencing Announced

The X Prize Foundation folks have decided to offer a new prize for DNA sequencing.

The Santa Monica, Calif., foundation plans to offer a $5 million to $20 million prize to the first team that completely decodes the DNA of 100 or more people in a matter of weeks, according to foundation officials and others involved.

Such speedy gene sequencing would represent a technology breakthrough for medical research. It could launch an era of "personal" genomics in which ordinary people can learn their complete DNA code for less than the cost of a wide-screen television.

Details of the award are being worked out, and officials say they don't expect anyone to claim the prize for at least five to 10 years.

I am all for orders of magnitude faster and cheaper DNA sequencing. However, I question the granularity of this prize. I'd rather see prizes for advances in microfluidics and other technologies that would be for goals that can be achieved more quickly and which could be done by smaller groups. Multiple research teams could very easily make contributions that get used in the final effort to win this prize and yet not be the actual team that travels that final distance. University groups with limited resources that are working on various aspects of the larger problem but not on pieces big enough to solve the entire problem aren't going to be incentivized by this prize.

Still, this prize will certainly increase the attention on the DNA sequencing problem and will probably hasten the day cheap DNA sequencing technology is developed. Plus, the sorts of big money people getting attracted to prizes (e.g. Google co-founder Larry Page joined the X Prize board) bodes well for the future funding of big science and technology prizes.

Prizes legitimize and promote technological goals to the public.

"Prizes change the public perception about an issue," says Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif. People begin to believe that a problem is solvable. "The more prize money, the more the issue is seen as important by the public."

Last June, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation put an exclamation point after "grand challenge" when it announced one of the richest in history. The Grand Challenges for Global Health pledged $436.6 million (including $31.6 million from British and Canadian sources) toward solving some of the world's worst health problems. Preliminary funds have been granted to 43 groups attacking 14 challenges. They include: developing vaccines to prevent malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV that don't require refrigeration, needles, or multiple doses; finding new ways to stop the spread of insect-borne diseases; and developing more nutritious crops to feed the hungry.

Of course, the coolest prize with the most relevance to the eventual stopping and reversing of the aging process is the Methuselah Mouse Prize for finding ways to make laboratory mice live longer. The latter article above even quotes Methuselah Mouse Prize cofounder David Gobel who some of you have noticed posting in the comments section of FuturePundit posts. The general buzz big new prize announcements helps promote each prize. The Ansari X Prize success with Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne flight into space has relegitimized prizes as a way to accelerate technological development.

Update: Aside: Corporations ought to use internal prizes for achieving various desired technological breakthroughs. Internally corporations are like command economies. Engineers and managers who come up with ways to save or make the company large sums of money rarely get much reward for their efforts. Companies could get a lot more innovation if they offered prizes internally for technological developments and cost saving innovations.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 January 30 09:16 PM  Biotech Advance Rates


Comments
James Bowery said at January 31, 2006 3:05 PM:

Last June, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation put an exclamation point after "grand challenge" when it announced one of the richest in history. The Grand Challenges for Global Health pledged $436.6 million (including $31.6 million from British and Canadian sources) toward solving some of the world's worst health problems. Preliminary funds have been granted to 43 groups attacking 14 challenges.


Why is it that no one can see how much of an obscene mockery this use of the term "grand challenge" is?


The fact that no one understands the difference between awarding a prize for achieving X vs awarding a grant for a proposal for achieving X is illustrative of why technology policy fails miserably generation after generation.

David Gobel said at February 3, 2006 11:52 AM:

James, you said in part "Why is it that no one can see how much of an obscene mockery this use of the term "grand challenge" is?"

I believe the Gates foundation is using "challenge" as a way to generate matching levels of support from national treasuries. So you are right...it's not a prize, but it is an attempt to leverage major resources using a carrot approach. Unfortunately, the media sometimes conflates prizes with challenge grants.

Cheers,
Dave

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