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Scientific research increasingly fueled by prize money

Prize sponsors, like those in centuries past, say that offering financial incentives gets new people thinking about old problems. But some worry the trend could distort scientific priorities.

January 10, 2013|By Eryn Brown, Los Angeles Times
  • Dr. Gary Michelson at home in Los Angeles with his dogs. As a medical student, Michelson objected to learning surgery by operating on live dogs. Today, he is the sponsor of the Michelson Prize in Reproductive Biology, which offers $25 million for the first researcher to create an easy, affordable means of sterilizing animals.
Dr. Gary Michelson at home in Los Angeles with his dogs. As a medical student,… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

Back when he was in medical school in the 1970s, Gary Michelson was nauseated by the portion of his training known as dog lab — a class where surgeons-in-training removed dogs' organs one at a time, over 13 weeks, with no post-operative pain relief, until their animal "patients" could no longer survive.

The lab bothered Michelson so much, he openly defied the dean's orders to do the operations. "I said, I don't understand that I need to mutilate a dog to learn how to be a competent surgeon for human beings," he said.

These days, the Los Angeles spinal surgeon and inventor would still like to save animals' lives, but through a new cause: birth control for dogs and cats.

Michelson has the means: He received a $1.35-billion settlement in 2005 related to his spinal surgery inventions. He wants to use some of that to put an end to millions of euthanasias by getting scientists to invent an inexpensive, single-dose method for sterilizing dogs and cats.

Biotech companies haven't been interested in producing the Pill for a pit bull or an IUD for a Siamese, because it wasn't likely to be very profitable. Top-notch scientists didn't have much motivation to figure out if it was even possible.

Michelson hopes to make it worth their while with the Michelson Prize in Reproductive Biology — a cool $25-million purse for the first researcher to solve the problem.

Ever since the splashy success of the Ansari X Prize, which in 2004 awarded $10 million to a team that launched a spacecraft 60 miles above Earth, funders are turning to contests — some with big cash prizes — to get answers to nagging scientific questions.

Taking their cue from the potentates of old, who often pitched competitions to spur creative minds, prize sponsors today say that offering incentives gets new people thinking about old problems.

Bottom-line-oriented philanthropists only pay for successes — and their payoffs can be large. (The Found Animals Foundation, for example, will own the rights to the winning sterilization technology, though Michelson has said he wants a "high-volume, low-profit model" and that he will "try to give this away.")

The X Prize Foundation, based in Los Angeles, is running multimillion-dollar contests to sequence genomes, send robots to the moon and create health-monitoring sensors.

Others chase humanity's classic quests — human-powered flight, or eternal life.

For more than 30 years, the American Helicopter Society International has operated the Sikorsky Prize, which initially set out to pay $20,000 to the first team to design and fly a human-powered helicopter for at least a minute at a height of about 10 feet. (Sort of like Icarus' wings of wax, the attempts haven't really worked; a 2009 pledge from the Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. upped the prize to $250,000.) Anti-aging guru Aubrey de Gray's Methuselah Foundation has offered millions for prolonging life in laboratory mice.

In all, researchers at McKinsey and Co. estimated in 2009, the value of contest rewards larger than $100,000 had tripled over the preceding decade, to $375 million.

Even the federal government is dipping a toe in the water.

In January 2011, President Obama signed the America Competes Act, which made it legal for any federal department or agency to offer prizes up to $50 million.

Today, more than 45 government agencies have placed more than 225 prizes into play, according the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. NASA, which has pursued contests for years, has asked for ways to map dark matter in space; for better gloves for astronauts; and for components to build an elevator to space. The National Institutes of Health is awarding $100,000 for ideas for eye research.

Previously, "they had to almost know you'd be successful before they'd give you funding. Prizes turn that on its head," said Erika Wagner, former executive director of the X Prize Lab @ MIT, one outpost in the cottage industry that has sprung up around the competitions.

Wagner doesn't expect contests to wipe out the old ways of paying for science — after all, the vast majority of the approximately $140 billion the federal government set aside for research in 2012 is distributed through tried-and-true means, including grants. But she does think contests can bring outsiders, and new approaches, to the table.

"Prizes tend to be won by people on the outside of a field," she said. "Many of these 'crazy' ideas are off-target, but all you need is one brilliant one."


In some ways, the prize resurgence is a step backward, to a time when the whims of royalty steered the course of science.

For centuries, breakthroughs hinged on cash awards, said Jaison Morgan, a former head of prize development for the X Prize Foundation who now helps craft competitions as chief executive of Santa Monica-based Common Pool.

"Things were slowed down by the secrecy of merchant guilds," he said. "To solve a problem quickly, the king put up a prize."

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