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New ideas for advancing science research

Recalling that a hotel owner's prize for the first pilot to cross the Atlantic launched the aeronautics industry, one academic suggests we can jumpstart today's research in the same way. Reward success not proposals, Berkeley's Kalil says.

Scientists and technology experts meet recently at the Brookings Institute to discuss the decline in American scientific research and to explore concerns over the possibility that the decline could lead to a dulling of America's competitive edge, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Lawrence H. Summers, the former president of Harvard University, gave a historical perspective by stating that the last century was the century of physics, with America leading the way. The 21st century will likely be defined by advances in the biomedical sciences.

"The question is will the United States be the leader?' "

Thomas Kalil, special assistant to the chancellor for science and technology at the University of California at Berkeley, proposed that the federal government give out prizes as an incentive to spur research. The idea came from 1919 contest sponsored by a New York hotel owner, Raymond Orteig, who offered a $25,000 purse to the first person to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. While Charles Lindbergh ultimately succeeded in 1927, nine different teams spent more than $400,000 going after the money, helping to spawn the multibillion-dollar aviation industry.

Offering prize money to researchers is not the typical route for funding projects. Prizes reward success instead of research proposals, as happens with grants.

"I'm not saying that we don't have to fund research, but we should look to prizes as a complement," said Kalil.

The disadvantage to these kinds of incentives are that smaller research institutions don't have the initial funds to do the research. But prizes may spur research in certain kinds of very specific innovations such as vaccines for diseases that afflict the poor, energy policy and even learning technologies, said Kalil.

Richard Freeman, professor of economics at Harvard, suggested that the U.S. triple the current funding on graduate research fellowships sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Funding more graduate students would not solve all the problems in science, but Freeman said that the minimal cost ($375 million a year) would galvanize the younger generation to set the future agenda for science.

"The point is that we would get a substantial response to this and all the good things would follow," he said.