Thursday, May 14, 2009

Wall Street Journal Science Prize Article

The Wall Street Journal had a very interesting article recently: The Science Prize: Innovation or Stealth Advertising? The author, Robert Lee Hotz, makes a number of good points about the strengths and weaknesses of incentive prizes (and it’s great to see Prize4Life’s name in the WSJ!), but we differ on a few key issues. It’s important to keep in mind that Prize4Life is a unique organization, and the prizes we offer are not the same as, say, the Nobel Prize, Netflix, or even the X-Prize. Of course, this gives us a great opportunity to discuss our model a little more deeply.

There has been a great deal of debate about whether crowdsourcing and incentive prizes prevent participants from claiming all of the benefits of developing a winning solution. We recognize that this can be a difficult hurdle for researchers competing for one of our prizes. That’s exactly why Prize4Life does not make a claim on any of the IP generated in the process of competing for one of our prizes, and we will never try to own or buy it (unless we are dealing with an extremely promising idea that a research team has explicitly said it does not want to pursue, in which case we will make every effort to ensure that the team is compensated fairly while we invite others to move the idea forward). We also try to help competing teams locate the front-end funding and resources they need in order to enter our prize competitions.

There’s also an important distinction between a prize that solves a problem specific to a particular company and one designed for the benefit of a broader population. In Prize4Life’s case, prizes are developed with the sole purpose of accelerating the rate at which treatments and a cure for ALS are found. We try to ensure that competing teams can find the funding they need and are compensated fairly for successful solutions, but we don’t offer any front-end funding ourselves, and we know that the teams competing for our prizes are financing their work through other avenues. If our prize model thus harnesses new funds and resources to address ALS, or if the model somehow saves money in the process of meeting critical milestones in ALS research, we’d call that a success, not just for Prize4Life, but for the hundreds of thousands of people living with ALS worldwide and their loved ones. A cure is a cure, regardless of how it’s found or how much it costs.

Another crucial difference is that between incentive prizes and recognition prizes. Hotz discusses Prize4Life and the Nobel Prize in much the same way, but the design and goals of each are hugely different. Prize4Life understands that recognition is important in the scientific community, and we certainly hope that our awards honor the recipients appropriately for their significant contributions to ALS research, but we do not function like the Nobel Prize. Our highly specific criteria focus exclusively on one critical issue in ALS research, and we will not award a prize until that issue is solved fully. The primary goal of our prizes is to solve a problem. In our case, the recognition is a means to an end.

Hotz also points out that science prizes "affect the conduct of science itself, by prizing some efforts at the expense of others." Organizations like Prize4Life are working toward a targeted scientific goal that will have a very specific outcome for patients. To some extent, we are indeed attempting to alter the landscape in which research is conducted, as Hotz suggests – by bringing more funds and attention to a specific research question, we intend to encourage researchers to focus on that question. It is our hope that some scientists, when faced with the wide array of questions they could focus on, might give special consideration to the few targeted research barriers that, when surmounted, will persuade drug companies to invest real dollars in ALS drug development. If our prizes can motivate some people to think about how their work might apply to ALS, or to consider whether ALS might be an interesting research topic for them, then we can truly accelerate the discovery of the vital breakthroughs that will make a difference for ALS patients.

When we launched our first prize in 2006, Prize4Life was the only organization using incentive prizes for neurodegenerative diseases (and only one of a handful of organizations pioneering the use of incentive prizes in the biomedical field). We have learned a lot over the past few years, and many of the lessons we have learned will surely inform the way that we (and other organizations) approach similar prizes in the future. It’s important, of course, to remind ourselves of all of the complex questions our model raises and to monitor the effects that prizes like ours have on the scientific community. But if we’re to effectively measure our performance and be successful in our quest for treatments and a cure for ALS, we need to be clear about our model and how it differs from so many seemingly similar initiatives.

Divya Vohra
Prize4Life Communications Manager

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