Sunday, August 17, 2008
Newt Gingrich, former Republican speaker in the Senate & general heavyweight US politician, has an article in the Wall Street Journal, general heavyweight US movers & shakers newspaper, on X-Prizes. He does get it.
New technologies have been improving life for virtually all of known history (think of fire or the wheel as examples of early technological breakthroughs). Given the inefficiency and slowness of bureaucracies with a four-year time horizon and a limited amount of money, I would favor the use of large tax-free prizes.
Prizes are powerful because they send signals to everyone that they can compete. Furthermore they are payable on achievement rather than on application.
The modern emphasis on peer-reviewed research has three bad side effects. One, it leads people to spend an amazing amount of time on the paperwork of application rather than on actually doing the experiment or undertaking the research. Second, it limits the applications to credentialed people. Third, it is a very cautious process that emphasizes relying on the approval of peers who tend to be cautious.
The Wright brothers could never have gotten peer-reviewed government funding for their airplane; in fact the Smithsonian Institution had failed to invent a workable airplane even though it spent more money than the Wright brothers.....
Prizes would be a useful experiment in large-scale breakthroughs.
The point about the conservative effects of grants & peer review is well made. Samuel P Langley, a respected scientist & founder of the Smithsonian did indeed get a government grant of $50,000 to develop a flying aircraft. Even though he didn't produce one I think that was a reasonable investment because it is such an important thing. However there is no way people like the Wright brothers would ever have got on the list for such a grant - not then & not now unless they were politically connected. A general X-Prize of that amount would have been even more worthwhile. Indeed what any downside is there to X-Prizes since they cost nothing if they don't work?. I have never seen an answer to that question even back when the LibDims refused to think about it. Perhaps some of them can explain :-)
Gingrich gives 7 suggestions for prizes, 5 very valuable - a usable hydrogen engine, cheap desalination, cheap space access, a commercial lunar base & a way of teaching math that kids like. People have been searching for the last since Euclid told Ptolemy that "there is no royal road to mathematics". That however is part of the point - any conventional project would undoubtedly cost vast amounts before reaching Euclid's conclusion while the sort of completely off the wall idea some individual might come up with would never be accepted into a government programme.
His other 2 suggestions are a prize for a cheap effective cure for malaria & a practical way to dispose of nuclear "waste". In fact both have existed for decades. DDT is exactly that & disposal by deep burial has always been easy & safe - so much so that opponents have taken to requiring that any approved disposal system must allow for retrieval when the isotopes become valuable - not a bad idea but hardly consistent with their own catastrophism. The problem with both of these is political hysteria rather than any genuine problems. Even here trying to formulate rules for a prize would be worthwhile because it would force politicians to confront the fact that the solutions already exist & if they could not find easy & impartial ways of excluding already existing solutions that, of itself would prove the purely political nature of the "problem"
Either way it would be nice to see government being part of a solution rather than part of the problem.
A cheap method to orbit gets you, in energy terms "half way to anywhere" in the solar system & is clearly the bottleneck holding up a space based civilisation. If a £1 billion, or even 2 prize would open that bottleneck it would be peanuts at the price. I am with Adam Smith on this who said that it was proper for government to underwrite canals & docks which at the time were cutting edge transport infrastructure.
The problem with government is that it normally does things so inefficiently, as seen with the $18 billion a year NASA gets (European space gets half as much but does proportionately even less). We see the same in Council Direct Works depts. Prizes, like open tendering, minimise that problem
But don't forget that public transport is one of the main drivers of land values. So this shouldn't be 'subsidised' so much as paid for out of Land Value Tax (if we had it). So if you get better roads, trains, buses, your area becomes more desirable, your land value goes up, but instead of that gain accruing to you in full, part of it goes back to pay for the cost of roads etc. So that's a win-win.
What I mean is that this is a "picking losers" problem. Assume that there is a prize for inventing a 'usable hydrogen engine', well that's technically easily done, but that would be loads of scientists spending lots of time on something that might turn out to be a waste of time.
Maybe, in the absence of the prize, those scientists would have invented something even better, like making algae produce oil, or a watch battery that never runs out, or a cure for a hangover or something.
The amount of money raised in car tax considerably exceeds what is spent on roads, though it was promised that is what it would be used for. I do take your point about LVT indeed I did suggest such as a way of funding the Scottish Tunnels
It doesn't solve the problem of whether the project is economicly sound in the first place. For example it has been proposed as a way of paying for the Borders Railway which was a pure piece of pork barreling for the LibDems. Ultimately nothing completely solves the problem of incompetence.