What do you do when you're frustrated by the pace of innovation? Peter Diamandis, for one, started the X Prize. Inc.'s entrepreneur of the year Burt Rutan won the first X Prize in 2004 for designing the world's first private space ship. Since then, Diamandis has launched several other X Prizes: a $10 million purse for fuel-efficient cars, another for rapid-fire genomic decoding, and a third, with Google, to send an unmanned rover to the moon, for $30 million. The notion of "revolution through competition," in the words of the X Prize motto, has caught on in other circles: last year John McCain campaigned on a promise to fund a $300 million prize to spur a new batteries for plug-in hybrid vehicles. Meanwhile, founders of the hedge fund Gotham Capital in 2007 launched with great fanfare a annual $1 million cancer prize, though this has suspended operations indefinitely due to "unforeseen circumstances."
But are prizes really better at stimulating breakthroughs than traditional research? Is the X Prize more hype than hope? The February issue of Discover magazine considers these questions in a feature article written by, well, me. Though you should definitely rush out to your newsstand and by the February issue immediately, "Should American Science Be More Like 'American Idol'?" is also available here, for the time being.