The folks over at Balloon Juice are mocking John McCain’s proposal of an “X-Prize”-like monetary prize incentive for developing more efficient batteries. The general thrust of criticism is that if you’re going to have government investment in business, better to have it targeted for research efforts that pay off faster than as an undirected, unorganized “prize” that no serious research team would consider worthy of the effort (since the payoff in designing a better battery is having patents on the better battery, not the three hundred million smackers).
This isn’t entirely incorrect, but it overlooks the one definite plus of an X-Prize-like incentive; it widens and democratizes research effort. It was only about a century ago that the majority of invention was done by talented amateurs – and this during the Gilded Age, remember.
My favorite example is probably the Wright Brothers, who invented powered heavier-than-air flight on their own; they were distinctly not part of the research community involved in designing heavier-than-air flying machines, so much so that it took over thirty years for the Smithsonian to recognize that they actually invented it. They had no scientific background and essentially invented the basic theory of propellor aerodynamics because nobody else had done it.
What other Wrights could be lurking in the background, needing only an incentive, however meager and illusory it might be, to kickstart their heads? For that reason alone, X-Prizes are worth pursuing as part of any environmental or energy technology strategy.