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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Cameron Endorses X-Prizes (As I Suggested To Him) But Naturally Without Understanding

In the years of my political activity I can think of very few times I have actually clearly influenced a change in government policy.

Here is one
Mr Cameron will set up a new Longitude Committee, chaired by the Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal, to gather suggestions and draw up a shortlist of problems facing the world. It will then launch a race to solve the most difficult predicament.

       Sources said the prize may not actually be awarded for many years, as scientists in universities and companies have been wrestling with many of the world's most difficult problems for a long time.
A Downing Street source said: “We want people to think big: what does the world need and how can we achieve that? We are looking for the next penicillin, aeroplane or World Wide Web. Can we grow limbs or create universal low carbon travel? Something that is going to really revolutionise what we do and how we live our lives - sending us sprinting ahead in the global race.”

Some time ago I sent the government a submission on the use of such X-prizes. Subsequently, following a speech by David Cameron claiming his government were engaged in an "unrelenting" search for ways to achieve growth I sent in an FoI asking what examination of the prize option they had made and why they had rejected it. The answer was absolutely none which since it was clearly totally incompatible with his promise caused me to accuse Cameron of having "absolutely no trace of honesty whatsoever".

However it proves beyond any dispute that they had never thought of the prize option before I suggested it.

So having taken responsibility for "Cameron's idea" let me rubbish it.

Firstly a real X-Prize is, by definition, for a specific, measurable achievement not this "we will award a prize for something" like this (the Saltire Prize for a "commercial" sea turbine suffers from the same but less so).

Secondly the offer of £1 million for "the next penicillin" or a "carbon free" plane (ie one that doesn't use fuel ie a perpetual motion engine) is ludicrous. This isn't even small change. By comparison penicillin has saved hundreds of millions of lives and a perpetual motion engine is considerably more difficult that that. This feels like the sort of "ideas" a political class who studied PPE and are thus wholly ignorant of science, economics or real life would have come up with in the pub, and I am fairly sure that is exactly what happened.

What we need is one or more independent X-Prize Funds administered by scientists, engineers, successful venture capitalists and accountants with a budget comparable to that given to at least our lesser eco-scare quangos (eg the £500 million given to NERC, a quango nobody has heard of that appears to exist to promote alarmism) and with an automatic escalator linked to the increase in the value of taxes paid by the industries in question - WITHOUT INTERFERENCE FROM POLITICIANS & CIVIL SERVANTS

One advantage of a fund,apart from being at arms length is that they can thus use the money to offer a series of prizes, just in case the fuelless aircraft turns out to be more difficult than Cameron appears to believe. There is no actual dispute of Pournelle's assessment that a £300 million ($500 m) prize would produce a commercial Earth to orbit craft. However there is a real place for smaller prizes, such as the $3 million DARPA Automated Road Vehicle Prize which has kickstarted the automated road transport industry.

The bad news is that our government are ignorant idiots, concerned only about soundbites rather than doing anything serious for the country. The good news is that even these idiots recognise that prizes are an attractive idea and have now said so. It is now impossible for Cameron to dispute that UKIP's previous commitment to taking the money we contribute to ESA and put it into X-Prizes [link] is sensible and if he or his party actually want the "debate" on UKIP's policies they claim they will have to come up with some real arguments against X-Prizes.

Something which, with the sole exception of saying that prizes are "an undue stimulus to competition"  nobody has felt able to attempt.

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