People often assume that only the government can fund major scientific breakthroughs. They point to the space program and the development of the Internet, noting the heavy role governments played in those advances, and therefore conclude that similarly groundbreaking innovations will not happen without a significant public endowment for scientific research.
Recently, however, private companies and charitable foundations have been taking a much more active role in building the future of our world, tackling ever more challenging issues through private, incentive-based financing.
One of the best innovations in private funding for science and technology comes from the XPRIZE Foundation, an organization that coordinates the offer of large cash prizes for notable breakthroughs. In a particularly interesting example, a prize initially offered in 2012 is close to bearing fruition, as two finalists compete to bring a “Star Trek Tricorder” to market.
For the uninitiated, the tricorder — as seen in the Star Trek franchise — is a handheld device that you can wave over the body of a patient and instantly diagnose medical problems, as well as read vital signs like blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate.
It has always seemed like fantasy, but now two companies have developed some pretty close approximations. The current prototypes are able to diagnose just over a dozen common disorders and can read vital signs just like in the TV show.
The implications for improving medical science are obviously great. The team that ultimately wins the prize will get $6 million, while the runner up will get $2 million, although lately the two teams seem more interested in helping each other and collaborating than in competing. Nor are the prizes delivered only at the end of the process: Various milestone grants are offered along the way to help brilliant — but less wealthy — scientists compete with the usual deep-pocketed suspects.
The tricorder prize is a great example of how an interesting idea can capture the public’s imagination and inspire innovators. At the onset of the project, some 300 teams submitted applications to try to claim the prize. That sort of competition is what it takes to ultimately reach results.
And while these prizes are not without an element of science fiction sensationalism, not every prize is something so flashy. There are also prizes for more mundane, but equally important pursuits, such as ocean exploration, women’s safety, global literacy, clean drinking water, and the diagnosis of Lyme Disease.
Of course, being inspired by science fiction isn’t a bad thing either. It’s worth remembering that science fiction authors have predicted and played a part in creating many real technological developments, and that Star Trek has previously given us the automatic sliding door and the flip phone.
The money for XPRIZE comes from a variety of sources, from Google’s effort to fund private space exploration to UNESCO’s $15 million prize for developing software that lets children in developing countries teach themselves to read and write.
And while XPRIZE does enjoy the support of some government agencies such as NASA, the driving force behind the prizes themselves are private contributions. The nice thing about the program is that funding can come from anywhere. And unlike government grants, there’s no bureaucratic gatekeeper deciding what is and isn’t important. If you can raise enough money for a prize, you can pick any research area you like.
This kind of decentralized search for knowledge is likely to yield more benefit for mankind than anything directed by a single source, since no one can know ahead of time which avenue of investigation will bring about the best discoveries.
It also solves the problem of politically motivated research — not by eliminating it, of course, but by allowing all sides of a contentious issue an equal chance to research their positions, rather than giving a single one sanction from the government. The competition element is also extremely important, since an open-ended research grant is more likely to be squandered without the possibility of someone else winning it out from under you.
The XPRIZE Foundation demonstrates that a competitive, market-based approach to research funding can work and that we need not always turn to the public coffers to continue to enjoy advances in technology.
This article originally appeared on Conservative Review.