Harry Lonsdale called me out of the blue last year,saying that he would be passing through Santa Cruz and wanted to discuss an idea he had. Well sure, I said, so we picked a day for him to visit. I had never heard of Harry, but when he showed up, right on time, we immediately hit it off. Harry turned out to be one of those rare people who are full of energy and ideas, generous and willing to share, someone who gets things done. He would have been wonderful in politics, and in fact ran twice as a Democrat for Oregon's senate seat, losing close races to Mark Hatfield. (He wrote a book about his experience: Running: Politics, Power and the Press, available from Amazon.)
Harry is a chemist by training, and years ago established a chemical company up in Oregon. He recently sold the company, planning to retire in San Diego. The reason he dropped by to talk was that he shared my interest in the origin of life. Moreover, he wanted to provide significant private funding for research on this fundamental question. We began to discuss how to do this, and I described the NASA Astrobiology program, which already supports such research, and how university scientists like myself write research proposals. The proposals are judged once a year by a peer review panel of experts, and a fraction, maybe one in ten, are funded for three years.
But Harry wanted to do something different, something in fact that is unprecedented. He proposed to fund an international competition, open to all, with a cash prize of $50,000 to be awarded for the best new idea related to how life began. Furthermore, if Harry really liked the idea, he planned to add an additional $2 million to support research aimed at testing it. I thought to myself, Whew! This is serious money!
Keep in mind that a typical NASA research grant might be in the range of $150,000 per year, and that indirect costs charged by the university eat up nearly half of that. What's left over is enough to pay the salary of a post-doctoral associate or a couple of graduate students at most.
Over the next few months we continued our conversation by telephone, and Harry contacted other scientists in the field. He now has a panel of experts in place to help him judge the entries. On July 1 he advertised the competition in Science and Nature and posted a web site where proposals will be accepted:
The contest is open until December 31, 2011, and proposals will be evaluated early in 2012, with the winner announced soon after.
So, what's going to happen? My guess is that there will be hundreds of proposals flooding in, mostly arriving in December. Many will be quirky, others will be frivolous, but there will be a few that are thoughtful and will be taken seriously by the panel. If Harry has his wish fulfilled, one of these will be truly novel, and panelists will say "Why didn't I think of that?"
I'll finish up with a metaphor. Research scientists are like gold prospectors, but instead of gold fever they are driven by curiosity and the intrinsic pleasure of searching for new knowledge. The government is like an investor who is willing to provide grubstakes, small amounts of money that support thousands of prospectors as they venture out to pan for gold. Most of them fail, but a few might discover a gleaming nugget in their pans, producing an eventual return many times the original investment. Harry Lonsdale is putting a pretty good grubstake up for grabs, and if he is lucky, one of his prospectors will hit the mother lode.