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The Prize and the Glory

The US Congress is encouraging the National Institutes of Health to take a leaf out of DARPA's book and offer prizes as a way to incentivize research, ScienceInsider's Kelly Servick reports.

Servick notes that the 21st Century Cures Bill, passed by the House of Representatives last week, includes a provision to start such competitions at NIH.

NIH has tested out prize competitions in a limited way, she adds. For instance, the National Institute of Mental Health announced a $500,000 Follow that Cell Challenge last summer to encourage the development of ways to track cells within the body.

Other agencies have used competitions on a larger scale. DARPA has, she writes, held a series of robotics and vehicle design competitions.

Such an approach, though, might be a bit more difficult to pull off in biomedical research unless it's an engineering issue or an area that requires interdisciplinary collaboration. "There only a few places where prizes really work in health," Christopher Frangione, XPRIZE's vice president of prize development, told legislators this week.

The bill, if it becomes law, would create an NIH Innovation Prizes Program, Servick reports. An advisory board made up of the NIH director, four people chosen by the director, and four people chosen by the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate would draw up the challenges and choose the winners. Servick notes that the bill doesn't include a prize amount.

Depending on the prize, Senator Ron Johnson (R–WI) says it might be hard to get people to participate. "A $10 million prize is not going to incentivize breakthroughs in something that literally costs hundreds of millions of dollars to develop," he tells ScienceInsider.