Thomas Alva Edison is famous for stating that genius is “one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” What Tesla’s arch nemesis and undisputed king of the ‘improvement’ patent left out, however, is that a bit of dosh helps out too. Inspiration and passion are important but incentive and even inducement can also be powerful drivers of innovation.
Anti-retrovirals were created because of the millions dying of AIDS, the Enigma Code was cracked to put an end to W.W.I.I. and white dental fillings were introduced to help stem the damage shown to be done by the mercury in amalgam ones. What is less well publicized is the cost associated with such important innovations, millions of dollars going into the development of anti-retroviral treatments and the current HIV vaccine and Alan Turing’s code-breaking machine setting Britain’s war-time, austerity government was backed by hundreds of thousands of Pounds.
As anyone with even a passing familiarity with Smithian economics knows, money can be a major incentive. However, by the same token, if it becomes the main incentive and getting money more or less the end game focus, it can shift and work can suffer, despite positive intentions behind the revenue.
What sets situations such AIDS treatments and war-time code-breaking apart from some other contexts is that the innovation was driven by an existing problem, the funding there of being a necessity for solving the problem rather than a key factor of it. A recent example in which money may well have trumped the drive for innovation is the Lunar X Prize funded by Google.
At the roots
When first proposed at the Wired Nextfest, the contest seemed like a neat idea. The accompanying $30 million in prize money being nothing to sneeze at either.The contest consists of privately-funded teams competing against each other to launch a device on the moon, move a particular distance and take pictures of predetermined areas on the lunar surface and beaming them back to earth. The only thing is it was announced in 2007, with a landing date of 2012.
Another one bites the dust
Part of the reason that the landing of a privately-funded lunar rover hasn’t been all over the news is that the deadline for the end of the contest has been extended. To December 31st, 2017. Launching a lunar rover under any circumstances is hard but it has gotten to the point now, nearly a decade after the initial announcement, that there are fifteen teams in the contest, five of which have confirmed launch date within the deadline. A problem Google saw coming and tried to undercut by saying that the prize money would be reduced by $1 million every time any government project lands on the moon before them. Another incentive. Except it didn’t work, the contest still going on and the rule was later dropped.
Been there done that: Is the Lunar X Prize hindering breakthroughs?
One of the issues surrounding the entire project is the location involved. While building, launching and landing a rover is an impressive feat and certainly something that has yet to be done outside the public sphere, government so far being the only ones with the money and resources to get even as a far as the moon, which is next door in terms of the universe.
Thing is, we have already been there. Several times. One of the main sources of criticism for the prize has been the inclusion of the so-called ‘Heritage Bonus’ for images of equipment left over from the Apollo missions including the Tranquility Base. Great for nostalgia, not to mention publicity, something Google is very good at, it does little to advance space exploration or the technology used to get there. We have it and have been there.
All such a contest really accomplishes, if it succeeds, would be to potentially move the business of space exploration from the public sphere to the private sector. Something that will make anti-tax advocates very happy and the involved private funders very popular but will likely only stagnate advancement or, in the best case scenario, make any discoveries patented private property.