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Charles L. Brewer
It had been a long day. Jim Pomerantz and I had been in meetings since 9:00 a.m. with the other Board members of the newly formed Foundation for the Advancement of the Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS), where we were doing the kind of organizational work required of any new organization. FABBS (www.fabbs.org) is an educational, non-profit organization established to promote and enhance understanding of the behavioral, psychological, cognitive, and brain sciences. It was created to take over a substantial part of the educational mission of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences ("The Federation") on behalf of its constituent sciences, but that’s a story for another day. One of the topics we focused on during the meeting was how to generate heightened interest in the psychological sciences. In any case, 6:00 p.m. found Jim and me in the bar of a D.C. hotel relaxing before dinner and catching up on family matters. During the course of the discussion Jim mentioned that one of his sons had just taken a job with the X Prize Foundation. I don’t remember if it was Jim or me, or both of us more or less simultaneously, who said, “Why don’t we try to get an X Prize, or something like an X Prize, for psychology?”
What is the X Prize? To quote Wikipedia, links and all, this is a “$10,000,000 prize, offered by the X PRIZE Foundation, for the first non-government organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space [an altitude of at least 100 km] twice within two weeks. It was modeled after early 20th-century aviation prizes, and aimed to spur development of low-cost spaceflight. The prize was won on October 4, 2004, 47th anniversary of the Sputnik 1 launch, by the Tier One project using the experimental spaceplane SpaceShipOne.” The X Prize foundation has plans to follow that first X Prize, properly called the Ansari X prize, with others of varying amounts and in other fields (see http://www.xprizefoundation.com/index.asp). Jim Pomerantz points out that such prizes have a distinguished history. Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris in 1927 for the prize money, something called the Orteig Prize. That event, of course, proved to be a gigantic stimulus for the airline and aircraft industry, and the X Prize was directly inspired by that.
We sat around for a good hour attempting to think up possible goals worthy of a prize (even if not a $10,000,000 one), and time after time were confounded by the need to meet the following criteria: (1) the topic needs to be inherently interesting/important and (2) the goal must be defined in a way that one can determine unambiguously that it has been met. Suppose the goal were to “locate the engram”? That sounds important (or at least it did a half-century ago), but how would we know we had succeeded? If there was progress in meeting such a goal it likely would be incremental; which investigator would deserve the prize? Suppose the goal were to “develop an effective treatment for autism”? We all know about the problems involved in defining a disorder that has been associated with a spectrum of related disorders. If the prize were awarded it might be followed by massive litigation on behalf of people whose alternative definitions were ignored by the prize committee.
Jim and I didn’t succeed in coming up with a suitable goal that evening. (We think we have had somewhat better luck on subsequent occasions, but we don’t want to stifle creativity by mentioning them at this time.) We didn’t think too hard about who the eventual donor might be, but we did feel that once an exciting, unambiguous goal was set it would not be an insurmountable problem to find such a donor. We would like to turn this problem over to the collective intelligence of the profession. We think this might make a good topic for seminar discussions. To guide seminar discussions there are two questions of interest: (1) What are some suitable goals? (2) If it proves exceedingly difficult to think of a suitable goal, what does this tell us about the field?
We are actually quite serious about pursuing the issue, so if you do come up with some ideas please forward them to Jim (firstname.lastname@example.org) or to me (email@example.com). We’ll take it from there and use the resources of organizations such as FABBS, the Federation, APA, etc. to seek actual funding, perhaps working with the X Prize Foundation itself.