June 30, 2008

OBAMA ON PRIZES: Not a flip-flop, but a straddle?

Declaring last week that he wanted to break the country’s oil jam by encouraging “heroic efforts in engineering,” John McCain called for the government to offer a prize — $300 million (a dollar an American) to the inventor of a battery so compact, powerful and inexpensive that it would supplement or even supplant the need for fossil fuels.

Barack Obama quickly derided the proposal — involving a sum equivalent to nearly 200 Nobel Prizes — as a gimmick and a distraction. But prizes are hard to resist. Mr. Obama’s own energy plan, posted on his Web site, suggests awarding them (in addition to tax incentives and government contracts) for ethanol research. But ultimately, he insisted, achieving energy independence will require a Kennedyesque effort like the one that put a man on the moon.

Plus this:

Considering the bureaucratic bog the space program has waded into — the exhilaration of Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind giving way to plumbing problems on the International Space Station — Mr. Obama might not have picked the best example. The latest pictures from Mars are stunning, but the most exciting thing to happen recently in manned space flight came in 2004 when Burt Rutan won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first privately backed suborbital excursion.

Winning the contest, which was named for its benefactors, the Ansari family, and administered by the nonprofit X Prize Foundation, cost more than the award was worth. (Mr. Rutan was backed by a Microsoft billionaire, Paul Allen.) But greater spoils may await, with Virgin Galactic licensing the technology for a space tourism industry.

This kind of leveraging is one of the selling points of sweepstakes science.

Yes, it is. And you’d think it’s the kind of new and exciting approach that a candidate of change would embrace, instead of harking back to what John F. Kennedy did about the time Barack Obama was busy being born. Read the whole thing.

Also, MSNBC’s Alan Boyle notes the increasing popularity of prizes in science, etc., among people who aren’t Barack Obama.

UPDATE: Reader Tim Morris writes: “Yes! NASA is just the model for long term energy independence! Just ask anyone at the Lunar Colony in the solar power satellite assembly operation. Oh, wait. . . .”