Prizes for Progress Against Coronavirus

The Mercatus Center Emergent Ventures Project is awarding prizes for important Coronavirus-related work

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

I am a big fan of technology-inducement prizes. The prospect of substantial rewards is a major driver for innovation and invention. Indeed, this is how the patent system works: Successful inventors are rewarded with a temporary monopoly (which allows them to obtain monopoly rents, i.e. economic returns greater than they would get in a competitive market). Prizes can provide a similar incentive structure and thus can be particularly valuable in contexts (such as with the atmospheric commons) where patents are insufficient to generate the super-competitive returns.

Prizes can also help spur innovation when it is needed due to exigent circumstances such as with, say, a pandemic.

At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen has announced that the Emergent Ventures Project of the Mercatus Center has raised money to fund over $1 million in prizes for coronovirus-related accomplishments. From his post:

I believe that we should be using prizes to help innovate and combat the coronavirus. When are prizes better than grants? The case for prizes is stronger when you don't know who is likely to make the breakthrough, you value the final output more than the process, there is an urgency to solutions (talent development is too slow), success is relatively easy to define, and efforts and investments are likely to be undercompensated. All of these apply to the threat from the coronavirus. . . .

Anyone in the world could make a contribution to the anti-virus effort and it won't work to just give a chunk of money to say Harvard or MIT. . . .

I therefore am grateful that I have been able to raise a new chunk of money for Emergent Ventures — a project of the Mercatus Center — for ex post prizes (not grants) for those who make progress in coronavirus problems.

Here are the newly established prizes on offer:

1. Best investigative journalism on coronavirus — 50k

2. Best blog or social media tracking/analysis of the virus — 100k

3. Best (justified) coronavirus policy writing — 50k

4. Best effort to find a good treatment rapidly — 500k, second prize 200k

5. Best innovation in social distancing — 100k

6. Most important innovation or improvement for India — 100k

What might be an example of a winning project?  What if this attempt to build scalable respirators succeeded?  That would be a natural winner.  Or a social distancing innovation might be the roll out of more meals on wheels, little libraries, online worship, easier ways to work from home, and so on. . . .

Cowen has also noted that, if funding is available, he would like to be able to offer additional prizes in this area.


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  1. Do all libertarians assume that concerned scientists won’t do everything in their power to stop COVID-19 without a financial incentive? Let’s face it, the Trump administration has decimated places like CDC; we need governmental organizations like that and other “deep state” entities to assure the smooth functioning of our communities. And this is true of health care as well: should the people who pick your apples and strawberries, who make and serve your food, work sick instead of taking off to get well?

    To me, a true libertarian digs his own well and latrine, and owns his own fire truck, instead of paying taxes to get these services. [I won’t say the same for policing, since they probably have enough guns to quell a riot.]

    FYI: I started reading Eugene Volokh’s blog well before he moved it to this site. I agree with many of the posts here, but sometimes they stick in my craw. I don’t want to just pick on this post or post-er, but considering the state of our current government, I have gotten a bit testy.

    1. Libertarians assume that, at any given time, there are multiple things scientists could be working on, that they have to choose between. Offering them money is a good way to change which they prioritize.

      Libertarians also assume that scientists, engineers, and writers, to name but a few professions, have expenses and need to pay for them. And so can’t ignore money.

      What do you assume?

    2. “the Trump administration has decimated places like CDC”

      How has he done that?

      1. The CDC budget has risen during Drumpf but there’s been some talk that future possible budgets, ( Budgets don’t get proposed and then immediately adopted wholesale in case you failed high school government class) proposed cuts to CDC chronic disease projects.

        Somehow this got garbled into Drumpf ‘decimated’ the CDC directly causing the coronavirus pandemic in the Twitter blue check/DUnderground sphere.

        Let’s face it, even if Drumpf did make cuts into the CDC before the outbreak it probably would make little to no difference as they’d simply be twiddling their thumbs until the outbreak happened and the White House began to ask for more money again like they’re doing now.

      2. This week a Trump official testified to Congress as to Trumps proposed budget cuts to CDC. Imagine cutting the CDC at a time like this .

  2. Anyone got any suggestions? Here is one that occurred to me. I am not in a position to implement it, so I will just toss it out hoping someone else can do it:

    Fighting the virus requires closing schools. One big problem with closing schools is that too many poor children are dependent on free meals they get at school. You don’t want them to go hungry.

    Well, if you close schools you idle school bus fleets. School buses are big trucks, with trained drivers, who know where everyone along their route gets on and off. Why not turn the buses into food delivery fleets, delivering food parcels for pick-up (by students, or parents, or guardians) at the usual bus stops. You could put an idle driver back to work, and give a job to some out-of-school high schooler, who could be put in charge of the actual organizing, loading, handling, and unloading of the parcels. The food itself could be prepared and boxed in school cafeteria kitchens, pretty much as always. It should not be hard to develop procedures to optimize social distancing while doing it.

    Seems like a way to mobilize existing resources with minimal need for training, recruitment, or delay in getting started. Just work out a few details, get it approved, insured, and funded, and get going. An energetic manager of a school bus fleet probably would not need more than a week to get it going. Best of all, the existing resources are already scaled just right for every market.

    1. Great idea, Steve! You do deserve a prize for that idea!!

      1. PS: did you come up with that idea to make money?

        1. Nah, not for money.

          A couple of days ago, I was trying to think of a way to deal with the food-for-the-poor objection, so I could encourage the school system in my own town to close. I think pretty much all the schools everywhere ought to close, and they probably will. But not yet in my town.

          But of course, all prize money gladly accepted!

  3. I would like to see some examples where somebody deliberately trying for a prize came up with something original, useful or lasting.

  4. Sorry, jph12, “decimated” is hyperbole. But just google “cdc budget trump” to see how he’s not dealing with a public health emergency.

    And Brett, you have the wrong idea about scientists and incentives (see, e.g., the top cartoon in How many Nobelists do you think were incentivized by the prospect of winning a Nobel, or by the challenge of the problem they were working on? Yes, money can be an incentive, but so is the stickiness and importance of the problem — and the ability of it to help others. I went into engineering because it was interesting and because I could make good money doing it, and later switched to criminology because I felt it was more interesting than calculating the trajectories of missiles, taking a pay cut in doing it. My feeling is that too many libertarians look only at the monetary aspect.

    1. You can nitpick all you want but Trump has done all the basics. State of emergency, border closures etc. He’s no Gregory House but I don’t really see anything extraordinarily out of character compared to the response from any typical leader adjusting for relevant powers keep in mind a lot of things people are whining about are more in the sphere of state and local authorities in the US compared to some other countries. In another world Clinton would be doing the exact same thing and Repubs would be throwing the same peanuts and Dems would be defending her like Repubs are defending Drumpf now. That the Dems are so eagerly politicizing this speaks more about them.

      1. Amos, here’s my nit. There aren’t any tests, and they are lying about it. That’s two-ways bad. First, tests are really, really important for reducing transmission. Second, lying at the top undermines social order everywhere—while it pushes everyone toward panic and defiance of authority.

        Please, stop trying to apologize for the president who is not responsible for anything. Hypothetical both-sides stuff is especially weak.

    2. Okay, Snopes told me that Trump proposed a reduction in the CDC’s chronic disease funding in 2021, but that hasn’t been implemented yet. That doesn’t seem like it would have made much of a difference, even if this year was next year and Congress had approved the cuts. I’m still not seeing it.

  5. The recommendation to ethanol alcohol sanitizers is universal. The functional group -OH defines alcohols and much of their effect. Water disassociates to -OH and +H / +H3O fractions depending on pH.

    Has anyone investigated / commented on the effect of mere water on Coronavirus?

    1. pH 4 – 4.5 or 10 – 10.5 water might work. The main thing is to disrupt the viral membrane, which sounds to be a fairly unstable enclosure. But relatively neutral pH soapy solutions work without risking the effects that low or high pH solutions may do to other organs (like the eye, for example).

  6. Okay, then. Since my last comment, mass school closings. So get going delivering that food to the poor kids.

    Now another proposal—a more limited one. People need to go to the registry of motor vehicles for all kinds of stuff. My wife’s license is about to expire. We are suppose to be practicing social distancing, for which we are prepared, and which we would prefer to do. Going to the registry to present new documents and renew a license is a painful opposite of social distancing. Get the registry together with the police departments to arrange an amnesty on expirations of licenses and vehicle inspections. Then close the registry to the public.

  7. Here is another proposal, from first-hand experience. It requires some background, so stick with it, and I’ll get to the suggestion after the explanation.

    A lot of folks get treated with so-called biologic medicines, for various reasons, often including a need to suppress the immune system. That class of medications has been a huge success, and for good reason. It delivers treatment benefits on a scale comparable to antibiotics, to a patient population which is quite large.

    There are two classes of those medicines, old ones (for instance, Remicade) which have to be infused in hospitals, and newer ones (for instance, Humira) which can be self-injected at home. In many cases, the new and old types might be chosen interchangeably, but with certain medical considerations complicating the picture. The benefits of the two types are comparable, with specifics varying by cases.

    What is not comparable is the marketing and payment methods, despite the fact that even the newer biologics ought to be off patent by now. The older medicines are expensive because of the need for a hospital visit, and the cost of trained monitoring for a prolonged infusion. The new medicines are expensive because the pharmaceutical industry has dreamed up a pricing work-around to make them outlandishly profitable.

    It works like this. The company sells the new biologic at a price (thousands a month) which would rule out mass consumption, because even the co-pay would be out of reach for most patients. To get around that, the company then offers a negotiated deal with each prospective insured patient. The company agrees to “pay” almost the entire co-pay on behalf of the patient, leaving a residual obligation as low as $5 per month. That opens the door to jack the charge to the insurance company to impressive heights, while eliminating sales resistance on the basis of price.

    Everybody with private insurance gets stuck with the bill for that. The patients—in many cases people with potentially crippling or even deadly autoimmune disorders—get a true medical miracle. And however inflated the cost, it is at least socialized through the insurance system.

    That’s the background.

    Here is the part of the problem which relates to the epidemic. The federal government, meaning Medicare and Medicaid, has been barred by law from going along with the pharmaceutical industry’s marketing scheme. So nobody with Medicare or Medicaid can get the newer, at-home administered medication. Instead, all Medicare and Medicaid patients have to troop to hospitals—typically 6 –12 times per year—for prolonged infusions designed to suppress their immune responses.

    That means immune-suppression patients get their treatment at places where they are certain to cross paths with the kinds of sick people they most urgently need to avoid. And that risk gets multiplied many-fold during an epidemic such as this one.

    So the background is complicated, but the suggestion is really simple. Change the policy. Let Medicare and Medicaid patients have access to the newer biologics, so they can treat themselves at home during an epidemic, and almost certainly save lives by doing so. Negotiate something about the pricing. Maybe use the outlandishly negative implications during an epidemic as PR leverage. Get it done, congress.

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