The U.S. government’s deepest of pockets sometimes get decent returns on its investments. Mostly, governmental spending seems a boring sport. I’ve watched Capitol Hill debates about spending money. It’s an eye-rubbing exercise. I’ve much more richly been enmeshed in the processes of federal contracting, its bureaucracy and paper requirements, and its ineffectual demands from the contracting officers and promises from bidders. It’s much like an eBay or Craigslist transaction between bullies bearing too much egoism, but it lasts for years instead of days. We’re all involved in the government’s money works by merely filing taxes, and you know how fascinating that is.
One area of government spending that is in fact fascinating, and has resulted in fruitful ends to boot, can be seen in its prize competitions. Maybe there’s no Plinko excitement egged on by Drew Carey. These competitions don’t outwit, outlast, or outplay our neighbor Nick Wilson. Nonetheless, they’re serious affairs for both government and participants. In a nutshell, the federal government’s prize competitions are meant to spur innovations by crowdsourcing the American intellect and ambition.
One ongoing program that began in the Obama administration launched around 2010. It’s known as Challenge.gov, both in program name and in website title. It’s not exactly a competition itself. It’s the clearinghouse for all governmental agencies to “engage citizen-solvers in prize competitions for top ideas and concepts as well as breakthrough software, scientific and technology solutions that help achieve their agency missions.” During these past 10 years almost 1,000 challenges were posed to the public at Challenge.gov, and answered by the citizenry, to help 100 of the government’s agencies, bureaus, and directorates.
Who has claimed prizes? Ham-and-eggers like you or me, hobbyists working from their basements. Numerous students and student teams have solved complex problems, as have their front-of-room counterparts steeped in academic research. Small businesses , and medium and large ones, have come through, too. Some of the current challenges, should you want to embark on a profitable (?) mission, include how to save energy in the manufacturing sector, finding data vulnerabilities at the Food and Drug Administration, or securing the space frontier by helping the U.S. Air Force plan for cybersecurity in outer space operations. Easy-peasy, eh? Of course not. That’s why instead of using its nearly limitless resources, both human and financial, the government is turning to the crowd. We’ve all solved complex, challenging problems—heck, preparing a decent meal is such a problem at its base—and in many cases we learned the hard way that to do so successfully requires a diverse team of experts in various disciplines. You fix dinner, maybe even alone in the kitchen, but the engineers who designed your stove helped, the farmers who grew the produce and meats made things possible, and the scientific method was employed to create the recipe’s process steps.
Challenge.gov is a relatively new prize competition mechanism, but motivating innovation in this way isn’t. Ever heard of one Charles Lindbergh? That’s right, while it was a privatized competition, the world’s first transatlantic flight was made to win a prize, $25,000 to be exact. The Spirit of St. Louis carried Lindbergh those 3,600 miles and netted a decent payday on his return. Ship navigation techniques were borne of a prize competition much earlier still. The White House and Capitol building’s designs were submitted for prize money. And, much more nearer our days, these open competitions have helped inspire clean water solutions, create gunshot detection technologies to help defend against the mass shooting phenomenon, and develop Mars-bound robots.
All of those examples reflect true challenges. In my feeble noggin, it seems hard enough to even usefully describe and define some of those problems. That’s always a researcher’s woe: properly defining the problem so as to not solve some other problem. It’s a fair consideration in light of the government’s prize competition that’s bouncing around Washington, and the scattered Congress members’ home offices these days. The CYBER LEAP Act of 2020 is a bipartisan bill that, if passed, would have the U.S. Department of Commerce set up prize competitions to “help foster innovation and collaboration as the public, private, and academic sectors work together to address the cybersecurity challenges of our time,” according to Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), one of the bill’s sponsors and the Chairman of the Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy.
There are enormous hurdles, indeed, within the anticipated challenges. The prizes will go to enterprising thought leaders in cybersecurity who can, for example, improve the economics of cybersecurity; answer the exigent, continuous call for more cybersecurity workforce talent; keep emerging technologies free from vulnerabilities; secure our digital identities; and dramatically improve the security within federal government systems. Meh … you’ve got this, right? Sure seems like, to me, we kick around so many solutions out on the deck, in the garage wrenching on a small block, or shooting the breeze otherwise. How about applying and winning some dough-re-mi?
Some who have studied the model of prize competitions more than my week’s worth of learning about them are not so impressed by the approach. Researchers at the University of Göttingen, Germany, for instance, looked to the existing intellectual property rights system—in America this would be our U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and IP laws—as enough incentive and protection for inventive minds to create solutions. They found that in prize competitions, where the prize and not a patent may be the upshot of one’s work, collaboration and cooperation were less than without the prize being dangled.
To me, prize competitions are a sensible approach, and while I may not be holding my breath for “first flight” level innovations, I know well that our state of cybersecurity needs something. If a prize wakes up the next security pioneer, then I’m all for it.
Ed is a professor of cybersecurity, an attorney, and a trained ethicist. Reach him at email@example.com.