September 23, 2007
Gotham $1 Million Prize For Cancer Research Ideas

New York City hedge fund managers Robert Goldstein and Joel Greenblatt have created an annual $1 million prize for the best idea for cancer research of the ideas which researchers (and even the rest of us) post on their Gotham Prize web site.

A managing partner at the hedge fund Gotham Capital in New York, Mr. Goldstein recognized similarities with his own profession. Money managers also were reluctant to share investment ideas. A few years earlier, Mr. Goldstein's business partner and friend, Joel Greenblatt, the 49-year-old founder of Gotham Capital, had created an online, selective group called the Value Investors Club, to spur idea sharing. Members shared investing strategies and commented on each other's research. A cash prize was awarded for the best idea of the week.

The two men thought that perhaps a similar model would work in cancer research. So this year they agreed to put up $1 million of their own money every year to fund the Gotham Prize for Cancer Research. Modeled on the Value Investors Club, the annual prize will go to the person who posts the best new cancer-research idea, judged by a board of respected scientists, at the prize's Web site by the end of December.

The winner of the Gotham Prize doesn't have to present a shred of evidence that the premise will work. To attract ideas from people outside the field of cancer research, there is no requirement that the winner be capable of seeing the idea through. And the prize money is earmarked for personal use, to be spent on anything the winner wants, even a fancy car or a bigger house.

Got a good idea for cancer research that you think might be worth a cool million bucks? Now's your chance.

Some researchers quoted in the article are skeptical that prize money for ideas is the most efficacious way to fight cancer. But as the article also points out, lots of researchers keep their ideas secret because they want to be first to publish and get credit for a discovery that follows from a good idea. Getting more ideas out into the public domain might speed up the rate of researchers by allowing teams to incorporate more ideas from other teams into their experimental designs and strategies.

More generally, prizes for scientific discoveries are a great idea because humans respond to incentives and produce more when properly incentivized. The incentives facing academic researchers are not entirely directed toward increasing the motive to make useful discoveries. Also, academics have incentives to make their own labs look more productive even if they might have an idea that would be better tested in another lab. Academic politics and other influences create incentives that reduce the motive to discover. The need to get grants renewed can lead to conservative choices that are more likely to produce tangible results even if not immediately useful results. Tenure reduces the need to perform in research. With all these influences financial incentives can make a big difference.

Update: Modest proposal for the Gotham Prize folks: Most researchers aren't going to take the time to read all the submissions that are publically posted. You ought to provide a way for readers to assign scores to the quality of ideas so that others with limited time can come in and read, say, all the 5 star submissions. Then you run into the problem of the quality of the reviewers. Let people see who is scoring the submissions and if they recognize some name they respect let them view the list of submissions that a given reviewer scored and what score he or she assigned to each submission.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 September 23 01:25 PM  Worthy Causes

HellKaiserRyo said at September 23, 2007 5:13 PM:

I got a good idea, give the Church of Scientology lots of money so they can audit out the etiological agent of cancer: body thetans.

And on another note, I doubt efforts to dismantle the FDA would work in regard to the Vioxx controversy.

James Bowery said at September 23, 2007 5:32 PM:

This hardly qualifies as "prize" in the honest sense of a reward for an objective achieved. It is little more than a grant with fewer requirements for how the money is spent.

As I commented on the distinction between grants and prizes at

Prizes are really just rewarded objectives. Objectives are a natural outgrowth of competent strategic planning. The reason prizes must be objective is the same reason one establishes objectives within in business or military strategic planning.

Attempts to water-down prizes with more or less subjective “grand challenges” as has the Gates Foundation, is the wrong way to go and illustrates incompetence in the handling of that foundation’s money.

— James Bowery Sep 8, 12:06 PM

Rob said at September 23, 2007 5:38 PM:

As Linus Pauling said,

The best way have good ideas is to have lots of ideas. I wish they'd give prizes for 2nd and third best ideas too. Prizes are good, they tell people what goals are valuable. What me need are prizes for un-PC things. Ideas that would kill a researchers career, but might be very valuable.

Hopefully Anonymous said at September 26, 2007 8:43 AM:

I think Rob's posted the only useful criticism in the comments. I suspect optimized prize contests have a careful distribution of 1st and runner up prizes. But I think this is a fantastic idea targeted to a great cause: cancer research. I hope they or others expand to heart disease, stroke, neurodegeneracy, automobile safety, infectious disease reduction, general reduction of existential risk, etc.

The google moon prize sucks, in my opinion, as it seems to be far from a rational top priority.

R. Clemens said at March 5, 2008 12:40 PM:

This is March 2008. I thought the Gotham Prize was supposed to be announced, like, the beginning of February? What ever became of it . . . ?

Did they just abandon the whole idea. Anyone know?

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