Thursday, January 17, 2008

More on Gingrich and a Mars prize

Space Politics has more on Newt Gingrich and space prizes. You can also see a copy of the interview discussed at Space Politics at Innovation prizes are discussed several times in the interview:

JB: ... You propose, in “Real Change,” a new kind of space program, for, giving prizes, for example, to go to Mars. How can the bureaucracy permit you to go past them and accomplish something like this?

NG: I think the bureaucracy will probably do everything it can to stop it. In 1903, the Smithsonian had been working on airplanes for 10 years, and had spent over $50,000 in tax money, and the Wright brothers, who were two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, flew. Now, they actually had a fundamentally different model than the Smithsonian model. It was much lighter, it was much smaller, it had a different set of aerodynamic principles, and it worked. It’s only great virtue was that it actually flew. Now you would never have gotten it funded by the National Science Foundation, you never would have gotten it approved at the Smithsonian, because they didn’t believe in it intellectually. It’s not that they were bad people; but they were wedded to a bad idea.

NASA today has managed to make space dull, expensive, bureaucratic, and slow. This is an enormous achievement: it’s just a dumb one. I think what we want is to find ways to break out. What I propose is to go back to a model that worked in aviation for 50 years: Offer very large prizes. I had a very senior member of the Air Force say to me, if we had a $5 billion tax-free prize for the first team to get to Mars -- think of it as the 21st Century America’s Cup, ‘cause, you know, there are millionaires and billionaires out there who spend an amazing amount of money on yachts in order to compete for the America’s Cup.

If we had a 21st Century America’s Cup in space, this particular expert in the Air Force said to me, they thought we’d get there in about five years and save about $220 billion dollars in federal spending over the next generation. So, you look at that sort of thing, and I don’t want to try to fix NASA, I want to try to create a competitive, prize-based system. I want to do the same thing in health. Alzheimer’s, a terrible disease, is a $1 trillion, 200 billion [threat??] to the baby boomers. What if we had a substantial prize: a billion dollars or more, tax free, for the first breakthrough that blocks the effects of Alzheimer’s. If any bright scientist anywhere wanted to stay up late at night, just invent it. Don’t fill out forms, don’t send in 70 copies, don’t wait to be peer reviewed: if you can meet the standards, and you can meet the challenge, you can get the money.

JB: Somewhere in my desk at home I have a copy of the Wright brothers’ first contract with the United States Army for their flyer. I believe it’s three-and-a-half pages long. I don’t know that you can get there from here in our current system. How can you get Congress to understand the value of such prizes and change it? You’re talking about real change in your book, and you’re defining it in terms of real leadership. Explain please.

NG: Well, we have been first of all, talking with many members of the House and Senate, as well as Governors and state legislators, and I’m getting a pretty significant response. I think there will be bills introduced in the next two months on a whole series of prizes. And I think there’s real interest: for example, at least one presidential candidate has picked up the idea, $1 billion for the first mass produced car that can do 100 miles to the gallon, which begins to change the whole economy for gasoline and for oil in Saudi Arabia and Iraq and Iran. So I think you’re going to see the idea of prize dramatically reenter the public dialogue, and that’s one way I think “Real Change” is going to turn out to be a pioneering book that really does create a fundamental shift in the national dialogue. We found in our polling -- which is at -- if you click on ‘research’ there, we did six national polls this summer, and overwhelmingly we had people who think prizes are a good idea. We saw the X prize being offered several years ago, for near space: $200 million was invested, to get a $10 million dollar prize. Because you stimulate the competitive spirits, you encourage the entrepreneurial mindset, you say to people who have lots of money and strong egos, “Let’s see if you can do it.” Not, “let’s see if you can apply for the paperwork,” -- “let’s see if you can actually do it.”


NG: ... I would say that you could look at this whole issue of prizes. Overwhelmingly the American people are worried about their energy future. They feel very uncertain about having Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Russia. How can a rational country rely on those sources of energy? And so I think if there was an aggressive opportunity to say to every entrepreneur in the world, “Look. If you can get us out of this mess, you’re going to get very rich very fast,” I think you’d see dramatic change.

Here's some polling results from the site Newt mentions,


Prizes should be given to companies and individuals that invent creative ways to solve problems.

We support giving large financial prizes to companies and individuals who invent an affordable car that gets 100 miles to the gallon. (77 to 15)
We support giving a large financial prize to the first company or individual who invents new ways to successfully cut pollution. (79 to 18)
We support giving a large financial prize to the first company or individual who invents a new, safer way to dispose of nuclear waste products. (79 to 16)

Also see pages 94-97 here.