A prize for cooking dinner (or solving neglected diseases) and why it’s a bad idea

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I don’t cook that much. It’s very hard for me, I get hungry, I get frustrated and then I make mistakes. As much as I like to DIY my way around the lab and daily living, cooking is one of those mountains I will one day conquer, but not tonight.

It hit me that this is the best way to explain why ‘innovation prizes’ for development will often fail to replace cold, hard investments in research.

Imagine, it’s Thursday evening, you’ve been working all day, there’s nothing in the fridge. You are hungry. Your kids are hungry. The inlaws in staying over on vacation. So, they cut a deal with you: if you cook a dinner they actually like, they will give you a prize—$100. A new fridge. A Netflix movie. A Starbucks card. Doesn’t matter.

So you set about to cook dinner.

Stop. Your fridge is empty. You can’t cook (I can’t cook). You have to a) buy food b) get skills c) test your dish with the kids to see if they like it, if they don’t they won’t eat and you won’t get your prize.

You have $20 which is generally enough to make grilled cheese.

The inlaws want a steak dish. With veggies. Grass-fed beef and a wine pairing.

You don’t have access to any other funds, except a credit line at the grilled cheese and pizza shop.

This is the point where the deal simply falls through. Despite the well-intentioned efforts to motivate your culinary skills, you go back empty handed, not able to even begin to theorize about steak cuts. Furthermore, the cost related to speculative cooking is beyond your safety net of a budget. Yes, the prize is great, but unless you get third party financing, it’s unlikely to happen.

Back to the lab

I’ve talked to scores of researchers at really great institutions. They are working on solving some of the most amazing challenges. I haven’t run into a single one that’s committing speculative resources based on a call to win a prize. I’ve met lots of student teams that gather a few hundred dollars to win a prize and their efforts and results are amazing. A few hundred dollars rarely cures a neglected tropical disease, though. For that, you need serious, long-term resources:

– Graduate students

– Staff

– Equipment: Centrifuges, microscopes, fridges, pipettors

– Reagents

– Cell culture processes

– Lots of other technologies

– Laboratory overhead expenses (the amount a home institution charges to keep the lights running, see here)

So, for scientists to take on challenges seriously, they can’t bank on winning a prize. Unlike our dinner example, there isn’t a hypotethical credit line at the World Bank that will allow scientists to put their research projects on a credit card. Even if they did, the risk associated with not winning (or your inlaws not liking your dinner) is too great to bet resources that would otherwise be beyond the typical budget of a lab.

Which is why it was a little unsettling to me when I saw this comment in an article covering the this month’s meeting of the WHO’s World Health Assembly

After reviewing 15 methods of boosting health through R&D, the group concluded that prizes to stoke innovation may work. Advance market commitments, in which drug manufacturers produce vaccines for poor countries at reduced prices in exchange for guaranteed donor-funded orders over the long term, have had limited success.

Then I went and downloaded the actual report and was surprised. Turns out the WHO’s WHA dehyped prizes in their conclusions. Good for them:

The above assessment and the existing evidence on delinking mechanisms suggest that certain mechanisms, most notably prizes and patent pools, may not be as effective as suggested, particularly compared to other mechanisms analysed in the report. Specifically, open compound databases, R&D grants, product development partnerships and advanced market commitments have demonstrated a success in stimulating significant R&D activities in various stages

The Little Devices group deems that institutionally and professionally we cannot, and will never go along with prize winning incentive policies.  If our work is relegated to prizes and not tangible and competitive investments in high risk priorities, deliverable or not, just like all other forms of research, then our efforts become an extracurricular activity separate from our mission. For the labs around the world whose core mission is to work on global and affordable health technology objectives, prize-incented policies relegate their work to an unfunded mandate. It’s like ordering a steak at a restaurant and telling them they’ll win a prize if you like it. Try and it see how that works out for you.

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One response to “A prize for cooking dinner (or solving neglected diseases) and why it’s a bad idea

  1. Yes I agree with you 100% and I like the opening gambit of your post very much. Working on neglected diseases poses special challenges on all levels from funding, public engagement (never heard of that…) to publications (not of wide enough interest).

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