Prize Money and Environmental Improvement

In 1995 Dava Sobel wrote a fascinating book, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time which tells the tale of the search for a solution to “the longitude problem.”  Without the ability to determine longitude, once they lost sight of land, sailors, for centuries, were at risk and adrift so to speak.

At long last, Parliament established a prize of 20,000 pounds sterling, $12 million today, for anyone who could develop a device or solution to this centuries old problem. Fortunately, a very determined genius, John Harrison, pursuing his dream for four decases, developed a mechanical clock, a chronometer, which could keep precise time at sea, thus allowing for the determination of longitude. After years of struggle and controversy, he won the prize.

Concludes Sobel, “With his marine clocks, John Harrison tested the waters of space-time. He succeeded, against all odds, in using the fourth-temporal-dimension to link points on the three-dimensional globe. He wrested the world’s wherabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch.” Great stuff.

This book came to mind after colleagues at Tulane law called my attention to a recent announcement that the University was offering a $1 million prize “. . . for the best solution to combat annual ‘dead zones’ in the world’s lakes and oceans. This Grand Challenge seeks innovative solutions to combat hypoxia, oxygen-depleted water caused mostly by excessive amounts of river-borne fertilizers and other nutrients emptying into lakes and oceans.”

This is a huge problem, worldwide, plaguing Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, the central basin of Lake Erie and numerous estuaries in the freshwater and, most predominantly, marine environments. Moreover, the cause of this condition is largely coming from unregulated agricultural nonpoint sources which are not regulated at least under the federal Clean Water Act and very rarely under state law.  Moreover, conservation subsidies under the Farm Bill are hardly sufficient to cope with a problem which is spread out across the landscape.  The Gulf of Mexico, for instance, drains the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio watersheds.

The idea of incentivizing technological and other innovative breakthroughs is popular with many “free market environmentalists.”  Lynn Scarlett, now with The Nature Conservancy, and an authority on, well, everything, told me that there is quite a bit of research that has been done in assessing when prize money does and does not generate impressive or useful results. It may be time to delve into that research, especially when one considers how many seemingly intractable environmental issues there are. Moreover, regulation sometimes has the unintended effect of locking in old technologies rather than allowing for dynamic innovation. But that is a subject for another time.

Tulane’s prize is being funded by Phyllis Taylor and her foundation.  The Iowa secretary of agriculture and the Louisiana commissioner for ag and forestry are also partnering on the effort.  “Prizes have led to breakthroughs ranging from Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight to new approaches to cleaning up oil spills,” said CristinDorgelo, assistant director for Grand Challenges in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Yes, nothing like generating what Keynes called those “animal spirits” for gain and glory.  The more the better, I say, in the cause of environmental conservation.

The competition will begin with a 30-day period to submit comments regarding the prize and letters of interest to compete at

Let the competition begin!