We used to think scientists were driven by the sense of fulfillment that comes with spearheading human technological progress, the thrill of discovery, or the love of nature -- not just money. Yet Richard Branson, who is presumably motivated by money just as much as he is by obligation to the planet, seems to believe cold hard cash is just the right incentive to get the world's scientists to discover how to blunt climate change.
Standing together with the former U.S. vice president Al Gore on Friday, the Virgin Group founder announced a $25 million prize for the first scientist who figured out a way to extract greenhouse gases from the planet's atmosphere. He compared the offer the 17th quest for longitude, sparked when the British Parliament offered a £20,000 prize to anyone to could find a way to locate the point on the open sea.
"Man created the problem, therefore man should solve the problem," Branson said. Gore added that the question of how "that extra carbon dioxide" could be scavenged effectively out of the atmosphere had not been asked till now. "And no one knows the answer to that."
It may seem a conflict of interest for the owner of the Virgin Atlantic airline to sponsor a prize for sucking out a gas regularly pumped into the air by his own planes. But the billionaire has his tracks covered. Last September he said he would invest $3 billion towards fighting global warming and would commit all profits from his travel companies over the next decade to that goal.
Prof. Robin Hanson of George Mason University has studied the history of prizes recently told The New York Times that accolades were more effective than grants in driving innovation. "These are the two essential advantages of prizes: They pay for nothing but performance, and they ensure that anyone with a good idea -- not just the usual experts -- can take a crack at a tough problem," he was quoted as saying.
The winner of the Virgin Challenge will receive $5 million once judges rule they have succeeded. The rest of the cash will be paid out over 10 years if the judges decide the winner's idea works over the long term.
But experts say the challenge is difficult, since no carbon capturing technology actually exists. "I see no evidence that a quantifiably acceptable solution or pathway has been identified," said Jerry Mahlman, the former head of climate modeling at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association told The Associated Press. "It's not what you say, it's what you can do and at the moment you can't do a lot." Still, when money comes into the picture, who knows what's possible?
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