Via Stuart Cantrill on Twitter, I see that UK Prime Minister David Cameron is prepared to announce a prize for anyone who can "identify and solve the biggest problem of our time". He's leaving that open, and his examples are apparently ". . .the next penicillin, aeroplane or world wide web".
I like the idea of prizes for research and invention. The thing is, the person who invents the next airplane or World Wide Web will probably do pretty well off it through the normal mechanisms. And it's worth thinking about the very, very different pathways these three inventions took, both in their discovery and their development. While thinking about that, keep in mind the difference between those two.
The Wright's first powered airplane, a huge step in human technology, was good for carrying one person (lying prone) for a few hundred yards in a good wind. Tim Berners-Lee's first Web page, another huge step, was a brief bit of code on one server at CERN, and mostly told people about itself. Penicillin, in its early days, was famously so rare that the urine of the earliest patients was collected and extracted in order not to waste any of the excreted drug. And even that was a long way from Fleming's keen-eyed discovery of the mold's antibacterial activity. A more vivid example than penicillin of the need for huge amounts of development from an early discovery is hard to find.
And how does one assign credit to the winner? Many (most) of these discoveries take a lot of people to realize them - certainly, by the time it's clear that they're great discoveries. Alexander Fleming (very properly) gets a lot of credit for the initial discovery of penicillin, but if the world had depended on him for its supply, it would have been very much out of luck. He had a very hard time getting anything going for nearly ten years after the initial discovery, and not for lack of trying. The phrase "Without Fleming, no Chain; without Chain, no Florey; without Florey, no Heatley; without Heatley, no penicillin" properly assigns credit to a lot of scientists that most people have never heard of.
Those are all points worth thinking about, if you're thinking about Cameron's prize, or if you're David Cameron. But that's not all. Here's the real kicker: he's offering one million pounds for it ($1.56 million as of this morning). This is delusional. The number of great discoveries that can be achieved for that sort of money is, I hate to say, rather small these days. A theoretical result in math or physics might certainly be accomplished in that range, but reducing it to practice is something else entirely. I can speak to the "next penicillin" part of the example, and I can say (without fear of contradiction from anyone who knows the tiniest bit about the subject) that a million pounds could not, under any circumstances, tell you if you had the next penicillin. That's off by a factor of a hundred, if you just want to take something as far as a solid start.
There's another problem with this amount: in general, anything that's worth that much is actually worth a lot more; there's no such thing as a great, world-altering discovery that's worth only a million pounds. I fear that this will be an ornament around the neck of whoever wins it, and little more. If Cameron's committee wants to really offer a prize in line with the worth of such a discovery, they should crank things up to a few hundred million pounds - at least - and see what happens. As it stands, the current idea is like me offering a twenty-dollar bill to anyone who brings me a bar of gold.