A New Prize Aims to Fire Up Open Science for Health

The NIH is joining two funders an ocean apart—but united by enthusiasm for open science and big data—to launch a new prize rewarding innovation in health and biomedical sciences. Cash prizes aside, the backers anticipate that it will pay off for everyone. 

Two of the biggest science philanthropy trends these days are using funding to leverage the massive growth of big data, and inviting fresh ideas via competitions. They both celebrate the same sort of philanthropic spirit—being clever with sizable, but relatively small sums, to accelerate innovation. The two are a natural fit, in this case turning to the crowd in order to take on the particularly overwhelming challenge of making health data more easily accessible and useful for advancing research. 

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The National Institutes of Health are getting in on this strategy, in partnership with the massive U.K. funder Wellcome Trust and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, by launching the Open Science Prize. 

The new competition invites teams from all over the world to propose products, tools, or services that will both advance open science, and benefit health or biomedical advances. Up to six teams will be chosen to win $80,000 and then work to develop prototypes over eight to nine months, one of which will win $230,000. 

The idea is that research and healthcare initiatives around the world that have digital components are amassing mountains of data on human behavior, fitness tracking, diet, genomic information, and many, many other topics. But we just don't know what to do with it all, don't have enough people accessing and working on it, and don't have enough people trained to take on such data. Open science seeks to crack this work open to a wider audience of bright minds. 

Related: These Two Funders Want to See Your Genome in the Spotlight 

So contestant teams might develop tools to exploit accessible data on the human microbiome, Parkinson's disease biomarkers, or mouse genomes, for example. They may even mash up this information with other data sets on topics such as climate change.

The prize platform is useful because, in the spirit of open science, anyone with a bright idea can make an impact as an outsider (even team members under 18, with permission slips). It can also draw attention, the likes of which we see with the new Breakthrough Prizes, Gates Challenges, or XPrizes. 

The international component is no accident, either, as teams must have both a U.S. lead and a non-U.S. lead. Open science is a necessarily collaborative, cross-disciplinary pursuit, so the prize-makers are hoping that different minds will mix and match in pursuit of the gold. 

Wellcome Trust and HHMI are both leaders in open science and biomedical research, as they are not only juggernaut private grantmakers, but also champions of making science more transparent and accessible.

The draw for these partners, particularly the NIH, is the hope that these ideas (not just the winners) will set in motion healthcare advances at a low investment in times of flat government funding, using information that may otherwise be gathering dust, and catalyze future advances by getting more people to engage in this work.

Related: Six Funders Working to Set Science Free