Do prizes work?

On Thursday (8 October), Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, and Sir David Attenborough launched a £50m “Earthshot Prize”, which, they claim to be “the biggest environmental award ever”, and which, they hope, will become the equivalent of a “Nobel Prize for environmentalism”.  The initial commitment is for five £1m prizes every year for 10 years. According to the Times, the name “Earthshot” is “[i]nspired by John F. Kennedy’s Moonshot speech”. The five priorities of the new prize are: (i) protect and restore nature; (ii) clean our air; (iii) revive our oceans; (iv) build a waste-free world and (v) fix our climate.

There is a long history of such efforts.  Just this month, Dame Sally Davies, the master of Trinity College and the former Chief Medical Office launched the Trinity Challenge, which offers a £10 million price and “brings together leading business, academic and philanthropic institutions, to harness the potential of data and analytics in order to better protect and prepare the world against health emergencies.” In 2007, Sir Richard Branson launched the Virgin Earth Challenge and since 1996 the XPRIZE Foundation has created a series of challenges from AI to the rainforest and most recently rapid testing and protective face masks.  Historically, we can go back further and NESTA has put together a list of ten historical examples including the Orteig Prize for aviation after World War 1 and perhaps most famously the Longitude Prize established in 1714 by the British Government for the princely sum of £20,000 for anyone who could find a solution for longitude to within half a degree.

  1. How effective do you think the new Earthshot prizes will be?
  2. More generally, how effective do you think such prizes are?
  3. Are there certain technologies or subjects where you might expect prizes to be more or less successful?
  4. What are other approaches that could be used to incentivise the same objectives of technology development and innovation?