Saturday, December 10, 2011
Prizes have the advantage of being available to anybody who can do the job and does not involve them having any government employee looking over their shoulder telling them how to do it. This incidentally proves that the Saltire Prize for developing a "commercial" sea turbine, though sold by Alex Salmond as an X-Prize isn't - the civil servants are involved at all stages in testing, their appears to be no technical specification of what "commercially viable" means (& I doubt such is possible) and a prize is going to be awarded to somebody come what may.
So lets look at use of prizes in some other fields.
Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership
Awarded by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to African heads of state who deliver security, health, education and economic development to their constituents, and who democratically transfer power to their successor. It was sponsored by Mo Ibrahim, a businessman born in Sudan. According to Ibrahim, "Good governance is crucial." With a $5 million initial payment, plus $200,000 a year for life,
2007 Joaquim Chissano for "his role in leading Mozambique from conflict to peace and democracy."
2008 Festus Mogae “President Mogae’s outstanding leadership has ensured Botswana’s continued stability and prosperity in the face of an HIV/AIDS pandemic which threatened the future of his country and people."
2009, 2010 No award
2011 Pedro Pires' "role in making Cape Verde a "model of democracy, stability and increased prosperity".
Which at $15 million has probably done more to produce what passes for democracy and prosperity in Africa than most of the hundreds of billions in western "aid" has over the decades. A considerably smaller amount than Tony Blair, alone has received on the US lecture circuit and elsewhere from people who approve of his support for the invasion of Iraq, but arguably Britain is more important than all of Africa.
Jerry Pounrnelle did propose, perhaps not in complete earnest, that had America, instead of invading Iraq, offered a $1 billion prize to the winner of the first democratic election in Iraq it would have become a democracy without having to spend over a trillion dollars killing people.
Crimestoppers. It Works .
when an innovative Albuquerque police officer offered a reward and the promise of anonymity for any person who could provide information to help solve a local murder, Crimestoppers was born.
The non-profit, citizen-run organization spread quickly throughout the country and beyond the borders of the United States. Today, there are Crimestoppers organizations in all 50 states and in nearly 25 countries throughout the world.
The Greater New Orleans Crimestoppers was formed in 1981, serving Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany, St. Bernard, St. John the Baptish, St. Charles, Plaquemines, and St. James parishes. In 26 years, the organization has helped solve more than 12,000 felony crimes and paid out more than $1,750,000 in cash rewards.By comparison New Orleans proposes a "$119.6 million agency budget next year". So by comparison, even if we assumed the bulk of the £1.75 million was paid in the last year the conventional policing budget would be 1000 times the reward budget. By comparison Felony crimes in NO reached "a peak of 4,100 in the first half of 2009" so over 26 years around 200,000 ie 16 times the ones crimestoppers was involved in.
Now obviously this may not be a fair comparison - the police were also involved in making the arrests crimestoppers found out about and indeed in finding supporting evidence. I suspect that the crimestoppers crimes would average more serious, if only because that means more people would know about them, but I suppose it might be the opposite. There is also always the risk of "grasses" making something up for the reward, but then that risk is probably less than that of people doing so to get early release from prison. So it would be wrong to say this proves prizes in law enforcement are 62,5 times more effective (1000/16).
But I think it does prove that it is likely to be considerably more effective and that if we want to clear up the more serious sorts of crime increasing rewards 10 fold would be more effective than doubling the number of beat policeman. Also much cheaper.
Scientific Integrity Act
I have written on this before. This is a scientific X-Prize but of a different nature to what is normally meant.
The prize is given for finding a mathematically based technical flaw in a hypothesis which it has been proposed government policy should be based on. The obvious example is catastrophic global warming - had such a prize been available Stephen McIntyre would have won it for demolishing Mann's "Hockey Stick" theory on which the IPCC based an entire "report" except that had such a prize been available it is highly likely that somebody else would have actually checked it, not least some of the IPCC scientists, before it was officially adopted.
Nobels, Pulitzers, Turner Prize, Booker Prize, Oscars etc
These generally are not X-Prizes in that no specific technical achievement is solicited up front, nor can there be. Nonetheless they are very successful at what they do. Because they are awarded for subjective achievement they are likely to encourage the field to move in the direction the prize awarders wish and this is what we see. Personally I would say that the Oscars do tend to improve the standard of film making- most of which is, after all, aimed at the buck of hormonal teenagers. I would also say that the Turners encourage crap. These are subjective opinions (but perhaps not purely held by me). What is less subjective is that they generally succeed in doing it.
What these prizes also do is reflect lustre on both the entire field and on the sponsors of the prize. If you want to get stamp collecting recognised as a high art or Al Gore as trustworthy the best way of doing it is to set up, a prize, of significant financial worth and an honourable name, invite the media and ensure it goes to the world's best stamp collector or whoever. The question of who will win makes it intrinsically more interesting than just hearing somebody has been given a bonus. This may encourage givingb the appearance of a competition when it is arranged in advance. For example when the RIBA held their architecture prize award in Edinburgh and the widow of the architect flew in in advance it was hardly a surprise that the prize awarded there was to our ludicrously useless Holyrood Parliament building.
The fact that they get sponsored shows the sponsors think it better than advertising. The fact that people can believe there is an incentive to fix shows everybody thinks they work.
Here is the very limited total of mentions of X-Prizes in out Parliament
A worthwhile pdf on the potential of privately sponsored prizes
And a very worthwhile paper on why government chose grants over prizes
Prizes were a common way to patronize basic research in the eighteenth century. Science historians say grants then won over prizes because grants are a superior institution. If different patron types tend to use different patronage forms, however, perhaps the patron types who tend to use grants just became more common. To test this hypothesis, I estimate the use of prize-like vs. grant-like funding among eighteenth century scientific societies. Societies with non-autocratic, non-local government patrons were especially likely to use grant-like funding. As these are today’s dominant patrons of basic research, eighteenth century data successfully predicts current patronage forms....My conclusion is that prizes generally are a superior way of achieving objective than government prepayment. There are building projects where there is one site and a choice must be made in advance, where fixed price contracts are the only applicable option. There are cases, like High Court Judges, where one would not wish money to be a consideration in decision making. However in general prizes should be the preferred option and in almost all fields some expansion of the proportion of resources spent on prizes vis a vis conventional funding should be made.
a statistical model has been constructed to predict the combinations of grant-like and prize-like patronage among eighteenth century scientific societies. This model successfully predicts today’s dominant form of basic research patronage, mostly grant-like and not prize-like, and such predictions rely more on patron types than on a proxy for scientific professionalization....I have suggested that such governments might prefer grant-like funding to prize-like funding because they were susceptible to distributive pressures from leaders of scientific societies, who preferred the “pork” of increased discretion over the money that passed through theirhands.
UPDATE - Jerry Pournelle, from whom I & I suspect everybody else, first learned of X-Prizes has linked to this and also given me a 2nd mention today.