The Perils of All These Prizes

It's starting to feel like there’s a new high-dollar competition launched every week, and the explosion has inspired a fair amount of backlash. Have we hit peak prize? What’s so bad, or good, about a little competition? 

So the other day, I came across a challenge in the works to build a personal jetpack. And I started to think maybe this whole high-dollar prize thing has gone a bit too far. 

I’m not going to pick on this jetpack idea; it may turn out to be a perfectly legitimate aeronautical goal to strive for. But with all of the press releases and articles touting each new challenge, prize, or award, you have to wonder if these ever-multiplying competitions are really the best way to solve society’s problems. 

I’m not alone, and even big names like the Nobel are taking heat. A recent Times op-ed from a medical professor called out “The Folly of Big Science Awards” for misrepresenting how research works, distracting from the need for real funding, and giving outlandish sums to people who need it the least. We've seen winners try to turn down the awards, or to channel the sums back to their peers. A tech mogul collaborative’s Breakthrough Prizes, the richest in the world, have been criticized multiple times for similar reasons, and for the questionable strategy of drawing people to science by making its practitioners into rockstars.

A couple of years ago, a spirited debate on the subject of competitions, prizes, and awards began over at Stanford Social Innovation Review, when foundation director Kevin Starr decided they do more harm than good and made a case to get rid of them—get rid of all of them! 

But his call has gone quite unheeded.

Just in the past year or so, we’ve seen continued growth of the Breakthroughs, the Open Science Prize, Google’s escalation of the Turing Award, the Carbon XPRIZE, the Biomimicry Challenge, the Longitude Prize, Wendy Schmidt’s Ocean Health XPRIZE, and so on. 

I think I really started to feel the symptoms of prize fatigue, however, when I read about HeroX. This is a for-profit spinoff of the XPRIZE that allows anyone to set up their own competition in that same spirit. You don’t even have to fund it; you can crowdfund it. An XPRIZE for anything. Given that even innovators with working prototypes can struggle to fulfill the promises of crowdfunding, plus the potential for seriously problematic practices in competitions, and this feels like shaky ground upon which to "change the world."

"Any problem can be solved," HeroX declares. Any problem? Really?

But the thing is, while there are aspects of all these prizes that are unsettling in a Wild West, winner-take-all sort of way, I regularly get excited about a lot of these competitions and the things they reward. Do we really need to dump them? I don't think so.

As with so many things, the devil is in the details, and the qualities of a good prize are a lot of the same qualities of good philanthropy. Sometimes a good competition is just an amped-up RFP with better transparency.

So rather than launch a competition to find a way to get rid of competitions, I've decided instead to assess some of the worst and best qualities of these proliferating prizes—the elements that can mean the difference between a competition that is just a pipe dream, and one that is a spirited playing field for philanthropy. 

So first up: Prizes are at their worst when… 

They send a bad message about science and innovation 

There’s this sort of myth floating around about the origins of scientific breakthroughs. The apple fell on Newton’s head and he discovered the concept of gravity. In truth, breakthroughs never happen because of one person or even one team’s isolated ideas or actions. Research is a mesh of interlocking ideas and experiments leading toward gradual improvement of understanding. Sometimes, what we see as a breakthrough one year turns out to be wrong the next. 

This is a main point of the Times opinion piece by Vinay Prasad, and also what bothers people about the Breakthrough Prizes. Yes, valuing scientists is great, but dressing up in formal wear and rewarding a small, often well-established number of them sends the message that every year, some superstar “wins” at science. Instead, it’s a long, tough slog of forming questions, testing, replicating, refuting, starting over. True societal respect for science would demonstrate itself through broad, steady funding, not a truckload of cash for a lucky winner.

They waste time and resources and provide false hope 

In a Wired post about HeroX, its CEO says, “The beauty of a prize is you only pay for success, and anybody can compete. All crazy ideas are invited.” (Emphasis added.)

Wait a second, that’s the beauty of a prize? I’m going to float an alternate theory that it’s just about the worst thing about a prize. That an entity with some money and a goal (note that XPRIZE sponsors are often corporations in fields related to the competition) can make thousands of people do backflips for the chance at funding, even if it makes no sense for many of them to be doing so. And what happens when all those crazy ideas don’t pan out? That’s the beauty, you see—you don’t give them anything. They are, after all, losers.

I think there's a mythology that the average person entering a competition is a mad hobbyist with a dream, a Doc Brown type. But more likely, they are people from startups, universities, nonprofits, public service, etc. Participating can be a hugely time-consuming affair, diverting resources from their work, and rewarding only one or two teams. Prizes can be like the lottery, dangling the hope of glory before people who probably really need the money. 

They don’t focus enough on follow-through 

This was a big complaint of Kevin Starr’s, that too many prizes are fixated on innovation or ideas. This is similar to the misrepresentation of science complaint. There’s an idea that in garages across America, there are secret geniuses who have on their chalkboards the ideas that would save the world if only they could get someone’s attention. But ideas are dirt cheap. How many of them make it to shelves, or the hands of aid workers, or doctor’s offices? That’s the hard part, and the work that needs funding.

But wait, it’s really not all that bad! That’s because prizes are at their best when…

They deliver a surge of life to an important topic

Prizes are great at grabbing attention in ways that press releases about grants (even big grants) are not. While a lot of grant programs tend to be sort of like spotlights with their distinct ideas of what’s going to work, a good competition is a floodlight. It can reveal who is doing what exciting things in an arena, and inform the prize funder, the media, the public sector, and other philanthropies about what the movers and shakers are up to. They send a signal to the non-philanthropic world: This is something we should be paying attention to.

They open up philanthropy

Grant seekers, when was the last time you were able to read the proposals of all the people who beat you out for a grant?  

The Knight News Challenge platform isn’t perfect, but if any competition is the standard bearer it’s this one (see a pdf report on their best practices here). And a big part of that is the dedicated transparency in its process. You can browse the full proposals of the large majority of winners and losers in their entirely on an intuitive contest website. During the competition, other contestants, or those with an interest, can comment and like, make suggestions, or even connect to team up. Reviewers are public and listed with social media contact info. It’s one of the most refreshing exercises in all of philanthropy, competition or otherwise. 

The best competitions do something along these lines. Rather than creating a cutthroat mentality, they invite a community of collaborators and an exchange of ideas. The most open competitions help entrants hone their plans, they are upfront about the chances of winning, and sometimes they offer professional mentoring along the way. 

They also invite outsiders to get involved. Grant writing is intimidating and confusing, and a good open contest can provide an entry point to philanthropy for a whole set of new people. That said, they must strike a balance between being inclusive and wasting people's time. Organizers can actively vet and guide those who should or shouldn't apply, at the start and throughout. And the remaining contestants will form new pools of talent to support, not just through the prize, but as ongoing potential grantees.

They reward many people, even non-winners

There’s something to be said for a huge lump sum, but I think the best prizes go to larger pools of winners, even if that means smaller amounts. Because let’s face it, none of these competitions should be make-or-break opportunities for these contestants. That's just mean. They should instead be opportunities to advance existing work.

Tiered prizes are great. Even better is when a competition recognizes the “losers” and connects them to resources for other avenues of funding or to improve their concepts. Again, not to fawn over Knight too much, here, but their losing finalists are featured on the site, often catching a lot of attention, and some will have the opportunity to apply for a different pool of funding. 

They don’t require a bunch of work

This might seem in conflict with the idea that a competition should be this big, cooperative love-in process. But it doesn’t have to. For one, an early stage of applying should be about as low impact as possible. As Starr puts it, initial entries should be possible at lunch on a cocktail napkin. Sounds good to me; let's stop making people shoot little videos. A competition should also be able to champion and nurture things an applicant is already doing. For god’s sake, don’t force these people to divert serious resources from their missions for the slim chance at winning the gold. 

Will all of these suggestions lead to true breakthroughs? Will they solve problems and change the world? Maybe, I’m not sure. And that’s another thing prize makers have got to take on: Figuring out what is really coming out of all this hullabaloo. Then they can keep us cranks quiet and have as many prizes as they want.