Results for “prizes”
215 found

GMU and Prizes

GMU people study prizes, sponsor prizes and we win some also!  Must be something in the water.

A George Mason University chemistry professor has won a $1 million
engineering prize for developing a simple and inexpensive means of
filtering arsenic from well water, an advance that is already
preventing serious health problems in hundreds of thousands of people
in his native Bangladesh and could help millions of others around the

The 2007 Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability,
administered by the National Academy of Engineering, will go to Abul
Hussam of Centreville, academy officials announced yesterday…

His final creation — an easy-to-make, maintenance-free, two-tiered
system that uses sand, charcoal, bits of brick and shards of a widely
available kind of cast iron — removes virtually every trace of arsenic
from well water. It wowed an independent panel of engineering academy
judges who, under the rules of the prize, were looking for an
affordable, reliable, socially acceptable and environmentally friendly
solution to the arsenic problem that did not require electricity.

rules also required that the product be proven in field conditions, not
just in a lab….The 2007 sustainability prize is the first in a series to be funded by
the Grainger Foundation of Lake Forest, Ill., created in 1949 by an
electrical engineer.

Thanks to Nitpicker for the pointer.

The Ig Nobel Prizes

Here is this year’s list.  Example:

Ornithology – Ivan R. Schwab, of the University of California, Davis, and the late Philip R.A. May of the University of California, Los Angeles, for exploring and explaining why woodpeckers don’t get headaches.

The funny thing is that just about all of these, even the hiccups one, represent real research.  Seriously.  Here is further background.

Data Prizes

I suspect greater payoffs will come from more data than from more technique.

So said Alan Greenspan and I think he is right.  Think of how much important work, for example, has been based on the Summers-Heston, Penn World Tables.  Yet, most of the time the collectors of data toil in the fields unrecognized and unrewarded.  When original data is collected it’s often hoarded – better to mine it for yourself than open up the commons.  Now, that is a tragedy.

We ought to increase rewards to data collection.  As a salutary example, which might be emulated by the AEA and others, Mike Kellerman points to the Dataset Award given by the APSA Comparative Politics section for "a publicly
available data set that has made an important contribution to the field of
comparative politics."

Prizes for vaccines for the poor

One way to structure a vaccine comitment would be to guarantee a price of, say, $15-20 per person for the first 200-250 million people immunized, in exchange for a commitment from the developer to subsequently drop the price in the poorest countries to a modest markup over manufacturing cost.  A commitment of this size would offer firms an opportunity for sales comparable to those available in commercial markets.  It would be extremely cost-effective, saving more lives than virtually any imaginable health expenditure.

That is from Strong Medicine, by Michael Kremer and Rachel Glennerster.  The authors have an excellent book and a noteworthy idea, but I have some worries.

Some poor countries, such as Ghana, have quasi-functional government.  But other governments won’t allow this to proceed unhindered.  Remember when some Nigerian states banned the polio vaccine for (supposedly) spreading sterility and AIDS?  That is an extreme example, but how about this?

In Africa, for example, it is estimated that only between 2-15% of children slept under bed-nets in 2001-a simple, effective and proven method to prevent malaria.   

If the cure for AIDS were a single glass of clean water, millions of the infected still would die.

This is why economic development is so hard and so resists formulaic treatment.  Correcting any single screwed up incentive won’t bring as big a payoff as you might think, given how many other things are screwed up.  We have to go one step at a time, but every step brings both short-term costs and political opposition, while not showing much in the way of immediate benefits.

Prizes work best when the prize-giver is aiming at a well-defined end, where success is easy to measure.  This fits "inventing a malaria vaccine" better than "distributing a malaria vaccine."  I would be willing to try this scheme, given the high upside returns.  But it is quite possible we could go ten years or more without seeing much in the way of tangible results, even once something is invented.

The X,Y, and Z Prizes

The founders of the X Prize are going to offer new prizes “to meet the greatest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century.” But they have not yet settled on exactly what fields or what accomplishments and they are soliciting public input. I’ve already given my suggestion you can give yours here.

The sponsors offer some valuable thoughts on how to choose appropriate fields and prizes:

The X PRIZE competition focused on jumpstarting a private space industry has re-proven the principle – strongly proven in the early years of the 20th century for the aviation industry – that innovation can indeed be catalyzed. ….

Although the idea of using the X PRIZE concept work in other areas is at first glance a simple and attractive one, a great deal of up-front thought needs to go into what challenges/opportunities would be selected. One could argue that there were certain qualities about the challenges and opportunities in both the aviation field and the space field that lent themselves extremely well to a private sector competition of the sorts which have occurred. Variables to be looked at might include:

The maturity (or lack thereof) of the technology around which the competition would be based?
The maturity (or lack thereof) of the related industries from which a new industry would be born
The number of potential “competitors” potentially able to meet the challenge or at least the depth of the pool from which potential competitors could be drawn
The level of the specificity of the challenge
The financial resources potentially available to finance the potential competitors
The financial resources potentially available to finance the Prize itself
How potentially compelling and exciting is the field around which the challenge would be based
The amenability of the target area to a threshold change in public expectation
The replicability of the challenge to other areas?
The level of the presumed long-term benefit to business and society

The list of questions above is by no means exhaustive, but does give a sense of how the selection of a new challenge is not as first as simple as it may seem. It is absolutely key that the right challenges are selected – sufficiently exciting to compel hearts and minds, sufficiently ambitious to reach beyond what is already likely going to occur soon and to have a truly substantial impact, and sufficiently focused to have a good chance of succeeding within a reasonable timescale.

The politics of Nobel Prizes

Jorge Luis Borges was one of the greatest writers never to win a Nobel Prize (try the early short fiction if you don’t already know his work). Now I know why:

The visit to [Pinochet’s] Chile finished off Borges’s chances of ever winning the Nobel Prize. That year, and for the remaining years of his life, his candidacy was opposed by a veteran member of the Nobel Prize committee, the socialist writer Arthur Lundkvist, a long-standing friend of the Chilean Communist poet Pablo Neruda, who had received the Nobel Prize in 1971. Lundkvist would subsequently explain to Volodia Teitelboim, one of Borges’s biographers and a onetime chairman of the Chilean Communist Party, that he would never forgive Borges his public endorsement of General Pinochet’s regime.

Borges, it should be noted, did believe in democracy but thought Pinochet the best of the available options at the time. For purposes of contrast, consider the following (slightly overstated) description of Laureate Pablo Neruda:

On the eve of his [Neruda’s] death, in 1973, he could still describe Stalin as “that wise, tranquil Georgian”. His feelings were similarly soft for Mao’s China, where he loved to see everyone in those vast landscapes and streetscapes dressed in regulation blue.

The former quotation is from p.426 of Edwin Williamson’s excellent Borges: A Life.

Sponsoring Prizes

Wouldn’t it be fun to endow a prize like the X-Prize or the space elevator prize I discussed yesterday? I’m surprised that more rich people don’t do this. Of course, we have the Nobel and similar prizes but these are awarded for general achievement in the past and as such are unlikely to exert a significant incentive effect. Foundations can last a long time but there is a history of foundations, for example the Ford and Carnegie Foundation, spending money in ways that their founders would not approve. If you fund a prize, however, you can specify the conditions for success reasonably precisely and for that reason the money is more likely to be allocated in a way close to what you would have wished. Furthermore, if you set the prize up so that the seed money is invested in the market until it is won you can almost be guaranteed that one day the prize will be won and you will be thanked for your contribution to humanity.

As noted, I like the space elevator idea but I think that if I had a few million to spare I’d endow a cryonics prize. This is the sort of research which seems doable, has a big payoff but for which there is virtually no serious funding. I’d endow the prize with a series of staggered awards, so much for succesfully reviving a rat after 1 week, so much for a rabbit after 2 months, so much for a pig after 5 years. The Grand Prize? That would be for reviving me.

Who should get prizes?

Leszek Kolakowski just won a new prize, the Kluge Prize, which is worth $1 million.

This is the nature of the prize:

The prize…is meant to highlight fields of study as varied as anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology and religion for which there is no major international award. It was conceived by the librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, and financed by the philanthropist John W. Kluge, who had no say in selecting the winner, library officials said.

In other words, it is intended to supplement the Nobel Prize. Kolakowski, a brilliant author, polymath, and critic of Marxism, is more than deserving. See also Jacob Levy’s excellent post on the matter, rebutting the charge that the award was politically motivated by “right-wing” considerations. After all, Kolakowski teaches at Oxford, hardly a hotbed of radical right sentiment.

In general we would expect that new prizes are awarded to the relatively old; Kolakowski is 76. Remember Cato’s Milton Friedman Prize of last year? It was awarded to the 85-year-old Lord Bauer, who died right before the award ceremony.

Presumably a new prize is seeking to build up its reputation, so its first few awards should be sterling in quality, not very controversial, and designed to generate maximum publicity. Once a prize is more established, the prize givers can take more chances, or use the prize to certify the quality of younger achievers, or use the prize to spur greater achievement.

Robin Hanson wonders why we don’t use more prizes today, in lieu of grants, to encourage science. In the eighteenth century, prizes not grants were the dominant means of encouraging science. One drawback of prizes is that they tend to be awarded in the interests of the prizegiver, and not necessarily to stimulate maximum scientific output. Arguably prizes should be awarded when people are younger, not older, if only for incentive reasons. Still, prizes make the most sense when you cannot predict where new innovation is coming from, and thus you do not know who should get the grants. As our world becomes more complex, less hierarchical, and more decentralized, I predict a greater reliance on prizes to stimulate science.

Thursday assorted links

1. Ed Coulson, an urban/housing economist at UC Irvine, now has a Jeopardy winning streak.

2.”We’re currently running a prize at Open Philanthropy ( for people to suggest new cause areas for us to explore on the global health and wellbeing side. We’ve extended the deadline for submissions to August 11th, and we’d love to see as many people applying as possible!”

3. Who deserves a festschrift more than David Gordon?

4. How Wikipedia influences judicial decisions.

5. NYT covers Barbados at length.  Parts are very good, but it no longer seems allowed to criticize Caribbean nations for making their own policy mistakes.  A useful but in some ways deeply misleading article.  At what level does the “censorship” enter?  The incentives of the writer or the world view of the writer?  I suspect it is the latter.

6. Austin Vernon on paths for geothermal.

David Theroux, RIP

I was saddened to hear of the sudden passing of David Theroux, the President of the Independent Institute. I was a professor of economics at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana when David approached me to be the research director (later Vice-President) of II. I had great colleagues at Ball State but was never happy about living in Muncie. Nevertheless, leaving academia was a big leap. My career at the time, however, was in the doldrums and when things aren’t happening it’s good to throw some variance into the mix…so I leapt. David and his wife Mary made my wife and I feel very welcome in Oakland. I remember fondly my young children playing in their garden in their beautiful house in the Oakland hills.

David was a great intellectual entrepreneur. He was the founding Vice President for the Cato Institute and the founding President of the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy. He started the Independent Institute on a shoestring budget in 1986, building it into a major institute that produced many important books and research articles.

Among the highlights of Independent’s extraordinary publications are Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government by Robert Higgs (1986, with a 25th anniversary edition in 2012); Antitrust and Monopoly, by Dominick Armentano (1990); Beyond Politics: The Roots of Government Failure, by Randy Simmons (updated edition 2011); Out of Work, by Lowell E. Gallaway and Richard Vedder (1997); Entrepreneurial Economics, by Alexander Tabarrok (2002); The Empire Has No Clothes, by Ivan Eland (2004); Making Poor Nations Rich, edited by Benjamin Powell (2007); The Enterprise of Law, by Bruce Benson (2011); Living Economics, by Peter J. Boettke (2012); Liberty in Peril, by Randall Holcombe (2019); and many more.

All told, Independent Institute books produced under David’s direction received more than 50 prestigious book awards, including three Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prizes, the Templeton Freedom Award, two Mencken Awards for Best Book, eight Sir Antony Fisher International Memorial Awards for Best Book, three Benjamin Franklin Awards, ten Independent Publisher Book Awards, the Peter Shaw Memorial Award, and three Choice Magazine Awards for Outstanding Book.

David spotted talent in other people, encouraged them, and made things happen. He was a prime mover in launching Bruce Benson’s important work on the law merchant and a big supporter of the great Robert Higgs (who started The Independent Review).

I learned a lot from David, especially about militarism and libertarian foreign policy, the marketing of ideas, and also about what it means to be an entrepreneur. I recall two instances in particular. The first was during the Microsoft trial when we had published the excellent book Winners, Losers & Microsoft: Competition and Antitrust in High Technology by Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis. II opposed the antitrust case against Microsoft, seeing it as waste of resources in a rivalrous industry (in retrospect, yup we got that one right). Larry Ellison at Oracle (a Microsoft competitor) didn’t like our work and hired detectives to buy the Independent Institute’s garbage and sift through it (yes, really!) to try to discredit us. The story become a page one headline in the New York Times (Independent Institute not really Independent!). I was worried about the impact on the Institute but David  always saw the positive even in “bad news.” At the time I found this frustrating as this seemed to me like a failure to see reality but David had the entrepreneur’s faith that vision, a positive attitude, and hard work can make reality. He kept calm and steered us through the difficulties to further strengths. I was wrong. David was right. He made it happen. The second time was when II was launching its scholarships for low-income children to attend private schools in Oakland. I sketched out a careful, well-thought out plan to get us ready to go in a year. David said no, “I want it ready in six weeks!”. I thought this was insane. But we did it! No surprise that David was an entrepreneur and I was an academic. Ultimately, of course, I returned to academia by moving to GMU but not before learning many valuable lessons from David and my years at the Independent Institute.

He will be missed.