Arnold Kling  

Some Wishful Prizes

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A web site called The Victory Project proposes billion-dollar prizes for


To the first person(s) that solves any of these Problems:

1. Develop a cure for breast cancer.
2. Develop a cure for diabetes.
3. Reduce greenhouse emissions from petroleum powered automobiles by 95% without increasing the cost of a normal car more than 5%.
4. Achieve 150 miles per gallon of gasoline in a 3,000 lb. car, using EPA standards; without increasing the cost of a normal car more than 10%.


My first reaction is that I would rather see do-gooders using this sort of thing than trying to work the political system.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/793
The author at Acton Institute PowerBlog in a related article titled PowerBlogging the State of the Union writes:
    I’ll be watching President Bush’s final State of the Union speech tonight and PowerBlog readers are invited to react and respond in the comments section below. I’ll be updating this post throughout the night (below the break) for tho [Tracked on January 28, 2008 9:36 PM]
COMMENTS (19 to date)
Dr. T writes:

I can say with certainty that #1 and #2 are not possible. I can say with very high probability that #3 and #4 are not possible. Thus, in my view, the proposal is only a publicity scheme.

#1 There are multiple different types of breast cancers, most of which have subtypes. The different types of breast cancers have different origins in different cell types and exhibit different biological behaviors. No one cure would work for all these different cancers.

#2 Same problem as #1: There are different types of diabetes mellitus, each of which has a few to over a hundred different genetic or biological factors and innumerable environmental factors. Again, no single cure is possible. However, a fully functional artificial pancreas (insulin pump) could be a universal treatment.

#3 A car powered by burning petroleum products has to create carbon dioxide. The only way to lower carbon dioxide emissions by 95% would be to trap the CO2 or reduce it to carbon (and release the oxygen). Adding a 95% efficient CO2 trapper (scrubber) to a car would add far more than 5% to its price. Converting CO2 to carbon plus O2 would use so much energy that fuel mileage would fall, and such a device would also cost too much.

#4 Somebody needs to take a physics class. A gallon of gasoline or diesel fuel, when burned with perfect efficiency, provides a limited number of heat calories. The heat must be converted into mechanical energy. It takes a lot of energy to accelerate a 3000 pound car to 60 mph. No system available can burn gasoline with 100% efficiency. The conversion of heat to mechanical energy is very inefficient whether one makes a direct conversion (gasoline or diesel engine) or creates electricity to drive electric motors. Efficiency is lowered by friction within the engines or motors, in the wheel bearings, and at the wheel-road interface. Air resistance is a major drag on efficiency at speeds over 45 mph. At present, the best fuel mileage for a 3000 pound car is ~50 mpg (VW diesels). A 3-fold increase in fuel efficiency seems impossible to me.

David Robinson writes:

I'd say the goals are well intentioned but far from the best ones possible. For starters, breast cancer isn't the most prevalent form of cancer, prostate cancer is (by a pretty slim margin, but considering how much more publicity breast cancer receives...) The things that have greatest advanced our standards of living were less flashy than a cure for cancer. Norman Borlaug's development of semi-dwarf high-yield wheat increased agricultural yield by something like 150%, and Malcom McLean's invention of the cargo container reduced shipping prices by around 94%. And yet it would be difficult to predict what goals in the future will be similar to these.

Eric H writes:

Why is the 3000 lbs. stipulated in #4? I suspect it's for safety purposes, but then shouldn't the prize state "Achieve 150 miles per gallon of fuel, using EPA standards; without increasing the cost of a normal car more than 10% or decreasing the safety rating below 3 stars [or whatever the current rating system requires]." And why gasoline? Why not diesel (including biodiesel)?

Lord writes:

I do think prizes can offer more bang for the buck than traditional research. Consider Darpa's initiatives in this area. I do think the goals should be smaller and more direct though. Something too grand would take too much time and money to achieve to make the attempt attractive.

Les writes:

The prizes are absurd. The market already offers rich prizes for people who achieve goals of that kind, if they are at all achievable.

To suppose otherwise reveals economic illiteracy.

Fly Fisher writes:

An interesting detail from the rules governing these Awards:

In order to receive the cash Award, the winner must agree to transfer all rights to the invention to the Foundation.

Sound good? If not, you may


Retain all rights to the invention, decline our Award, and go market the invention themselves. We will remain bound by our non disclosure agreement and we would have no rights to the invention.

So, this appears to be is an advance offer to purchase the rights to the invention for one billion dollars.

Troy Camplin writes:

It's good to see that someone has stolen my idea for curing HIV and applied it to something. It's all about incentives. If you pay people to look, they will look. If you pay people to find, they will find.

8 writes:

As Les says, the market offers far greater incentives for these discoveries. A better plan would be something like what drug companies already do with biotech companies— milestone payments. Take the billion and break it up into different payments, with the largest prizes aimed at breakthrough discoveries. Or the prize could be for something unprofitable, like landing a man on Mars.

shayne writes:

It is a fairly clever scam, but a scam nonetheless. While the naively donating "do-gooders" wait for the improbable results, the Dewey Foundation gets the use of the Billion dollars or whatever portion thereof they can solicit. And, as Les and Fly Fisher noted, they have little risk of ever paying out due to the market value of the rights to such results.

As an aside, I would advise Dr. T against ever "say[ing] with certainty that [anything] is not possible." Human history is rife with folks that have made claims like that, and human history has universally proved them wrong.

Floccina writes:

Number 4 could be done with a ceraminc engine if you did not care about the cost and relability so it may be possible.

Ben Kalafut writes:

When people are actually imposing a harm on others, "working" the political system is totally appropriate. Cancer and diabetes don't fall into that category, but greenhouse gas emissions do.

We already have a technology to reduce these emissions. It's called markets. Perversely, a horde of "free market" economists object to extending markets to the atmospheric commons, the result of scientific illiteracy and too many years of the likes of Fred Singer and Patrick Michaels whispering cute lies into their ears.

Scott Wood writes:

Ditto what Les said, and apply it to the automotive X-prize as well. With the exception of number 3 (at the moment), there is already well over a billion dollars of market value in those inventions. So, what do the prize givers expect to happen that wouldn't have already happened?

The automotive X-prize seems especially preposterous, as its payout is a rounding error to GM, Toyota, Ford, etc. --sw

ps--That being said, I'm perfectly happy to see it done, and hope someone proves me wrong. --sw

Lord writes:

Aside, the cure for diabetes would be stem cells, but only if their replacement would not lead to their demise. Even if they did, repetition may work for a time.

Dr. T writes:

Shayne said:

As an aside, I would advise Dr. T against ever "say[ing] with certainty that [anything] is not possible." Human history is rife with folks that have made claims like that, and human history has universally proved them wrong.

Unless history can change genetics, cellular biochemistry, and the pathophysiology of cancers, my statement is correct. There can be no one single cure for multiple different cancers. There may be a general type of cure that could work for multiple cancers (nanomolecular killers, for example), but each cancer would need its own specific cure.

shayne writes:

Dr T:

History won't change genetics, but human understanding of genetics will change with time. Do try to allow for that.

Matt Wells writes:

I agree with troy camplin, i think if you pay people to look, they will look. So i agree with the idea.
I feel that it gets people motivated. Rule #4 is kind of ridiculous but it's still a good incentive.

Ronnie Horesh writes:

I like the basic principle, which is similar to my Social Policy Bond idea. But I think the goals need to be thought through a bit more. They should be broader: rather than reward cures for breast cancer and diabetes they should target something along the lines of increased longevity and wellbeing of, say, the US population, perhaps as measured by Quality Adjusted Life Years. Otherwise the prize might divert scarce research resources away from areas where they can achieve a much better return per dollar. Similarly with 3: total environmental damage is the problem, not just ghg emissions. Number 4 looks better but, again, the problem is total environmental damage: lots of cheap-to-run vehicles could raise net petrol consumption as well as total environmental damage.

Mark Jones writes:

Wow, the negativity on this board is just amazing.

I think this Victory Project is a great idea. I agree that the solutions are quite difficult, but that is the point, don't you think. Impossible?

If this is such a terrible idea, then tell me why there is $300 Billion donated to charity / research in this country every year and we still don't have a solution? They system is set up to perpetuate expensive baby steps over a long period of time while keeping lots of people employed. Maybe some of you guys are part of that system and don't really want to see a cure.

Or maybe you are just mad that someone not as smart as you came up with it.

On its web site, the Dewey Foundation says it is a IRS 501c3 group, so just what "benefit" would they get from the money? they can't spend it on fancy cars, they must spend it (per the IRS) only on what they have declared in advance.

I know some of you guys are professional skeptics, but calling this a scam? You should be ashamed of yourselves.

Here is a guy who is willing to put himself out there for critics like you to take shots out because he thinks this will affect real change.

If you are so much smarter than this Dewey guy, surely you have a better idea. Let's have it. Tell us what it is and maybe we'll support it.

But eating Cheetos, blogging and criticizing a guy trying to make a difference for society doesn't impress me.

C'mon, what do you have that is better?

And, why aren't you pursuing it?

Seriously, a bunch of folks on an economics website taking potshots at an incentive based, free market approach THAT PRESUMES NOTHING is nothing short of astonishing. You must be so proud.

Mark Jones writes:

Dr. T:

What incredible, astonishing hubris.

You entire message can be thrown out after your use of the phrase: "I can say with certainty that #1 and #2 are not possible. I can say with very high probability that #3 and #4 are not possible. Thus, in my view, the proposal is only a publicity scheme."

I wonder how many people, every bit as smart as you, said similar things. How many guys like you stated "with certainty" that man would not fly? And many other achievements that smart guys like you boldly proclaimed impossible.

You say Dewey needs to take a physics class; perhaps it is you that needs to take a history class. History tells us nothing is impossible IF we get focused on it.

There is a huge difference between "can't" and "haven't yet". You flat earthers should cling to the 'can't'; the rest of us will follow Dewey to the "haven't yet" and see about getting it done.

Your negativity is inspiring, I am not only going to donate to the Victory Project, I'm going to look Dewey up and volunteer to help him.

History is full of lots and lots of guys like you. Smart, perhaps even brilliant; and utterly wrong about man's inability to achieve.

Sadly, there doesn't seem to be enough Dewey's.

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