07/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Scientific Innovation Should Be Highly Prized

Early in his administration, President Barack Obama signed a memorandum on transparency and open government, an especially important commitment for the sciences in the wake of the George W. Bush administration's history of politicization of scientific analysis. Late last year, the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a directive requiring executive departments and agencies to take specific actions to further the principles of the president's memorandum. The directive also required the OMB deputy director for management to issue guidance for the increased use of challenges and prizes as tools for promoting open government, innovation, and other national priorities.

The use of challenges and prizes is also important for the sciences, and for innovation more broadly, because they can be designed to achieve multiple purposes at once. A look at the Scialog® challenge created by Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the foundation that I head, offers a valuable example.

Scialog -- a portmanteau of 'science' and 'dialog' -- is a multi-year grant challenge designed to accelerate the work of 21st-century science by funding individuals or multi-disciplinary teams to pursue transformative research, in dialog with their fellow grantees, on crucial issues of scientific inquiry. The initial Scialog round -- entitled "Scialog 2009: Solar Energy Conversion" -- provides grants of $100,000 for individual researchers and $250,000 for qualifying teams of researchers, for a total of $3.2 million.

The initial round -- whose grant awards will be announced later this month -- focuses on funding and building research teams at major U.S. universities to undertake groundbreaking studies in the conversion of sunlight directly into useable forms of energy, such as electricity. Each Scialog grant will fund research for three years, and grant recipients will attend an annual Scialog closed meeting for researchers at Biosphere 2 in Oracle, AZ.

The OMB's guidance on the use of challenges and prizes identifies six types of prizes (or challenges) as follows:

"Exemplar prizes, such as the Nobel Prize, define excellence within an area. Historically, most prizes have been exemplar prizes that recognize past general achievement in a field, but other prize designs may more effectively spur future innovation...

Point solution prizes aim to reward and spur development of solutions for a particular, well-defined problem...

Exposition prizes help identify and promote a broad range of promising ideas and practices that may not otherwise attract attention, facilitating further development of the idea or practice by third parties. Successful exposition prizes can mobilize capital and institutions in support of ideas and practices developed during a prize competition...

Network prizes build networks and strengthen communities by organizing winners into new problem-solving communities that can deliver more impact than individual efforts...

Participation prizes create value during and after the competition -- not through conferral of the prize award itself but through their role in encouraging contestants to change their behavior or develop new skills that may have beneficial effects during and beyond the competition...

Market stimulation prizes try to establish the viability of a market to address a potential market failure, mobilize additional human talent and financial capital to jumpstart the development of a new industry, or change public perceptions about what is possible..."

Scialog is designed to achieve five of these six objectives -- all but the first. It aims to spur development, in its initial round, of solar energy innovations. It will help identify and promote a broad range of promising ideas and practices. Through its annual meeting of grantees and institutionalized dialog, it will build a new network of boundary-crossing researchers and teams, participation in which will encourage those grantees to consider new multi-disciplinary approaches to the challenge. And Scialog will try to establish the viability of a market to mobilize additional human talent and financial capital to jumpstart the development of a new industry.

If one challenge or prize can achieve all that, think what a crescendo of challenges and prizes -- encouraged and stimulated by the federal government -- can do for scientific inquiry in the United States. President Obama is on the right track: innovation should be highly prized.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (, America's second-oldest foundation, begun in 1912, and the first dedicated wholly to science.