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Prizes and Competitions Spur Innovation in Government Agencies

Wave Energy Prize Testing
Wave Energy Prize testing is carried out in this 12-million-gallon "indoor ocean.” | DOE

The government’s use of prizes to spur innovation has increased dramatically during the past six years, and AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows have played an active role in creating and implementing them. Some alumni fellows have also continued to use prizes and challenges to solve research, development and environmental problems in their work outside of government.

The U.S. government has offered prizes since its earliest years — in 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson created a $500 prize for the design of the U.S. Capitol. However the practice increased dramatically in 2010 after President Obama proposed government agencies increase their use of prizes to stimulate new, creative solutions in partnership with industry and individuals.

Chris Martin, a 2010-2011 Legislative Fellow who served on the Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Committee, helped contribute to the America COMPETES act of 2010, which included the provisions that allow more federal agencies to run competitions and offer prizes. Martin is now the science program officer for The Kavli Foundation, which recently announced the Kavli Microbiome Ideas Challenge to develop new tools and methods for understanding how microbes function.

“We believe that a prize is the right tool to bring out and reward early-stage, high-risk, high-reward ideas that might not be funded under more traditional grant-making,” Martin said.

Many government agencies agree. Since 2010, about 740 government prizes and challenges have been created by more than 100 federal agencies according to, a website created to publicize them. Upwards of 250,000 “solvers” comprised of teams, businesses, and individuals have competed for the more than $250 million in prizes, other incentives and recognition offered.

Noël Bakhtian helped create a Department of Energy (DOE) community of practice on using prizes, challenges and innovation to promote their use across the agency while serving there as an Executive Branch Fellow from 2013-2015. Prizes are great for agencies because “they’re only paying for success,” Bakhtian said. Prizes also can engage people who haven’t worked in a particular field before, and so bring in new approaches and ideas that may borrow from other fields, she said.

In addition, prizes help innovators develop their ideas by creating a common benchmark for innovations to be judged against. “There’s a minimum standard—a line above which everyone has to perform—to even be eligible for an award,” said Bakhtian, who was recently a senior policy advisor in the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.

Some may even offer support to qualified participants, such as development funding for those who pass an initial design phase, and access to technical and business experts, she said. For example, DOE’s recently completed Wave Energy Prize gave nine finalists, selected from 92 entrants, funding to build prototypes and test them in the nation’s most advanced wave simulation facility. This kind of support can help companies get products ready for commercial production, Bakhtian said.

Following are more prizes and challenges STPF fellows are working on:

  • A National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) challenge led by Heather Evans (2008-09 Executive Branch Fellow at National Science Foundation, NSF, and 2009-10 in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy) to generate apps that utilize its data. Evans and NIST are also participating in the Head Health Challenge III, a partnership with General Electric, Under Armour and the National Football League to develop new helmet materials that can better absorb or dissipate energy.
  • NASA's International Space Apps Challenge, a 48-hour hackathon, is managed by Shobhana Gupta (2015-17 Executive Branch Fellow at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration).
  • The TechMousso competition co-led by Elizabeth Zeitler (2015-17 Executive Branch Fellow at the Millennium Challenge Corporation, MCC) encouraged the use of the MCC’s open data on gender, including novel ways to create and use data about issues affecting women in Côte d’Ivoire.
  • The National Science Foundation’s Generation Nano: Small Science, Superheroes is led by Denise Zannino (2015-17 Executive Branch Fellow at NSF), which challenges high school students to use nanotechnology to power a unique superhero and then tell their hero's story in a short comic and video.
  • Helen Amos contributes to the Challenging Nutrients prize aimed at reducing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in waterways, and Joel Creswell leads the Arsenic Sensor Prize Competition to reduce the levels in drinking water. Both are current Executive Branch Fellows on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Innovation Team, which encourages the use of challenges at the agency.
  • Alex Dehgan (2003-05 Executive Branch Fellow at the Department of State), CEO of Conservation X Labs and co-founder Paul Bunje (2006-08 Executive Branch Fellow at EPA) propose using challenges to generate conservation innovation to better address the “grand challenges of conservation,” including protecting marine species, preventing illegal logging and combating invasive species. Bunje is also chief scientist and principal at the XPRIZE Foundation.

On a related note, AAAS recently introduced Lab to Launch, a new entrepreneurship competition that seeks to identify and support the District of Columbia’s promising young science and tech innovators. The program provides training sessions, networking opportunities and $10,000 in total seed capital prizes.


Kathleen O'Neil

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