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Share Your Ideas, Win a Prize, and (Maybe) Cure Cancer

The Wall Street Journal on 18 September
2007 tells the story of the Gotham Prize for Cancer Research, a new
philanthropic venture that offers prizes to biomedical researchers, or anyone
for that matter, for ideas on curing cancer. The funders hope their offer of
prizes — $1 million for the top award — will stimulate ideas and approaches
well outside the mainstream of conventional research and thus speed the
development of new diagnostic tools and therapies.

The Gotham Prize is a venture philanthropy project like the one Peter Fiske
discussed in his Science Careers column in June, but with some
important differences. It’s the brainchild of financier Robert Goldstein, a
managing partner of the hedge fund Gotham Capital, who lost his mother to
ovarian cancer in 2004. Goldstein wanted to apply some of the thought processes
used to discover new investment ideas to cancer research. The Gotham Prize looks
for ideas that may not get funding elsewhere because they lack preliminary data,
or do not fit into conventional research paradigms, or because the people behind
the ideas do not have the traditional scientific credentials. The prize has some
other unusual features; this is from the Wall Street Journal article:

The winner of the Gotham Prize doesn’t have to present a shred of
evidence that the premise will work. To attract ideas from people outside the
field of cancer research, there is no requirement that the winner be capable of
seeing the idea through. And the prize money is earmarked for personal use, to
be spent on anything the winner wants, even a fancy car or a bigger house.

The application process and follow-on activities are
also different from most scientific prize competitions. There’s a two-stage
review process that asks for a short thesis or proposal rather than a detailed
research plan. The submissions are screened by an advisory panel of scientists, with the finalists’ ideas
then considered for the awards
. There’s no second-round of full
proposals.  After the competition, the ideas submitted, whether they win an
award or not, will be offered to foundations and other funding sources.
Participants can also be put into contact with potential collaborators to follow
up on their ideas.

The panel of judges–all scientists–will consider
the novelty and potential impact of the submitted ideas in making their
decisions. Submissions do not need to include evidence, but further testing of
the ideas must be feasible. So far, according to the Wall Street Journal
article, the panel has accepted about a quarter of the ideas submitted from
1,030 registered submitters, with only 54 of the ideas posted on the Gotham
Prize site. Even some of the advisory board members, the article says, are
struggling with the balance between novelty and feasibility. Says one board
member, "It is data that shows us the way, not a wild idea that comes out of
nowhere."

The competition is open to scientists and
non-scientists anywhere in the world, in academia or elsewhere. The deadline for
applications is 31 December, but because of the time needed for the
pre-qualification process, new applicants should submit their applications
before December.