I attended a workshop this week on Reversing Global Warming: Chemical Recycling and Utilization of CO2. The last speaker was Alan Knight, the independent sustainable development adviser to the Virgin Group. Yes, that's Virgin as in Virgin Records, Virgin Airways, and Sir Richard Branson.
Knight spoke to the conference attendees about Virgin’s Earth Challenge, a $25 million prize that will go to
Whoever can demonstrate to the judges' satisfaction a commercially viable design which results in the removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases so as to contribute materially to the stability of Earth’s climate.
Knight described a bit how Virgin’s thinking about the prize has evolved since it was announced in February 2007. It was modeled originally after some of the great technology prizes in history:
More recently, the Ansari X Prize for the non-government-sponsored launch of a reusable manned spacecraft twice within two weeks was won by Scaled Composites in 2004 (Virgin licensed that technology for its commercial spaceflight venture, Virgin Galactic).
But those prizes were a bit different in that they honored the completed mission. Knight noted that the Earth Challenge is rather akin to awarding a prize for the airplane blueprint rather than the flight itself. He also acknowledged the gulf that exists between interesting, basic science ideas and a commercially viable product with a solid business plan, which is required for the prize application. He said Virgin is now seeking development funds to help move early-stage projects further forward before the prize might be awarded to any particular one. Virgin has also clarified its position on intellectual property rights—the $25 million will not garner Virgin IP rights to the technology that receives the prize (although they perhaps will be interested in negotiating IP rights separately).
Some at the workshop clearly thought it was inappropriate for Knight to speak at the meeting, and many thought that the prize is merely a publicity stunt for Virgin rather than something that will truly advance or honor scientific progress. Yet the workshop opened with a talk by Luis Echegoyen, director of the chemistry division at the National Science Foundation, who described NSF’s Small Grants for Exploratory Research, which he thought would be of interest to the attendees (NSF was also a sponsor of the workshop). It wasn’t obvious to me why it was okay to hear about government grant opportunities but not a prize funded by a business.
And publicity stunt or not, the prize does not detract from other sources of funding; rather, it would add to the pool of money available to support and advance possibly significant technology. It surprised me that people would eschew such an award. Readers, what are your thoughts?
- The British government's Longitude Prize in the early 1700s for a method to determine a ship’s longtitude (won principally by John Harrison in 1765).
- The French Academy of Sciences' award to whomever could come up with a process to create soda ash from salt (Nicolas Leblanc won in 1791).
- London’s Daily Mail had two prizes for the first successful plane flights across the English Channel (won by Louis Blériot in 1909) and Atlantic Ocean (won by John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown in 1919).