Will NIH Embrace Biomedical Research Prizes?

Centuries after the British government offered up to £20,000 for anyone who developed a precise method to determine a ship's longitude—a British cabinetmaker won with his invention of a highly accurate clock—prizes for scientific or technical accomplishments are sexy once again. The X-Prize Foundation is largely responsible for this renewed interest, thanks to its multimillion dollar prize incentives for radical breakthroughs in areas such as DNA sequencing and manned spaceflight. U.S. government agencies, however, are also getting in on the act. NASA and the Department of Defense, for example, have launched several prizes to stimulate research advances or accomplish technical goals. But what about America's premier funder of biomedical research, the National Institutes of Health (NIH)?

NIH has so far sat on the sidelines of the prize game, but there are hints that may soon change. Yesterday, on NIH's Bethesda, Maryland, campus, several parts of the agency held a meeting, Crowdsourcing: The Art and Science of Open Innovation, in which various government and private organizations that offer research prizes described their successes, prompting speculation over whether NIH will follow suit. And James Anderson, NIH's director for the Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives, said in his closing remarks to the audience that NIH Director Francis Collins would soon sign papers that would ensure NIH is compliant with the America COMPETES Act, which gives federal agencies the authority to offer cash incentives for researchers to tackle high-risk, high-reward research questions that have eluded more traditional funding platforms, such as grants and sponsored research. Yet Anderson declined to say how long it might be until NIH begins offering such prizes. "We're asking people to be a little bit patient," Anderson says. "But we're making progress."

The America COMPETES Act was first passed in 2007 and was reauthorized in December. Under its authority, federal agencies outline a problem they'd like solved on Challenge.gov, then open the competition to individuals or teams, evaluate the results, and award a money prize to whoever turns in the best solution. Offering prizes has several advantages over granting or sponsoring research, said Dwayne Spradlin, president of InnoCentive, an online platform like Challenge.gov that hosts research competitions. Funders get many fresh looks at the problem for less money than it usually costs to provide a grant. "You're distributing the risk and accelerating research and development in the process," Spradlin says.

Incentivized research was just one theme at the crowdsourcing conference, which also explored other ways scientists and science agencies could take advantage of the processing power of lots of willing brains. Media guru Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly Media discussed how patient-centered Web sites such as PatientsLikeMe.com collect massive amounts of data on patients' symptoms, environments, lifestyles, and emotional states. Even though the data aren't collected in a standard scientific way, he said, scientists should still embrace such a massive amount of information and mine it for new ideas. "We are building a global brain out there on the Internet," he says.

Adrien Treuille, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, added that this new global brain also likes to have a little fun while it does science. He and colleagues are the creators of two online video games, Foldit and EteRNA, that simulate protein folding and structural RNA mapping, respectively. These games have proven surprisingly popular among nonresearchers and players' solutions often surprise scientists because their creativity isn't constrained by what they think a correct answer should look like, Treuille says. And that's precisely the value of crowdsourcing, he notes. "It's not a linear thing to get the public involved in science," Teuille says. "It's incredibly nonlinear and all sorts of crazy things come out, some of it brilliant."