Challenge prizes are gaining increasing favour among funders. Craig Nicholson sizes them up, with some winners and runners up.
Challenge prizes aren’t new. They date at least as far back as 1714, when the British government offered £20,000 to whoever could devise the best method for ships to determine their longitudinal position while at sea. That prize had a protracted and contested conclusion, with the final award paid out to clock-maker John Harrison in 1773—59 years later—perhaps explaining why challenge prizes took a while to catch on.
But they have become popular. The European Commission has launched a dozen challenge prizes under Horizon 2020, with rewards of between €500,000 and €3.5 million each. They combine a top-down objective with bottom-up delivery: applicants can achieve the objective however they like. For example, one of them asks applicants to develop a test to determine whether a patient with a lung infection needs antibiotics, but it does not specify what the test should look like.