What I couldn’t do with $30,000

Inventiveness should be cherished.  It’s something that I’ve always felt was true, even though I’m likely to not ever make a better widget-maker.  I value creativity, in the areas of art where I have some potential for benefiting the world, but also in areas of science and most importantly, humaneness.  While the last is obviously the hardest to acheive, I still have utter respect for those who excel at the first two.

The Lemelson prize is a recognition of the second, a recognition of strides made in science inventiveness.  This year’s prize winner is all about bacteriophages, little viruses that infect bacteria.  By redesigning these, the winner was able to use them to target the DNA of bacteria and manipulate its ability to resist antibiotics as well as to produce enzymes that break down the biofilms that bacteria can build up as slimy layers of defense against antiseptics and cleaners.  What’s next?  Proteins for the destruction of viruses?  The manipulation of DNA on a molecular level?  I certainly don’t know.

There was also some discussion of the development of new antibiotics, and how expensive it was.  Evidently the reason most companies don’t take it on is due to the high cost of the process and the low returns due to a decreased use of antibiotics.  There are two contradictory self-defeating propositions there, I suppose counterbalancing each other.  The first is the reduced use of antibiotics due to increased resistance to them, which new developments might be able to overcome, increasing the use of that particular antibiotic.  The second is the increased resistance of bacteria to antibiotics due to the development of new ones that allow bacteria to grow more defensive.

Finally, I would like to discuss the prize of $30,000.  Now, I can understand the recognition we want to give to our inventors, and the bacteriophage work is something I never could have done.  But still, $30,000?  What is the money really for?  Do we think this winner is going to be more inspired to invent more due to his prize, or is this considered just as seed money for potential future developments?  Obviously the addition of funds helps research, but how much is a prize like this really going to fuel that research?  Would the money be better spent on programs that allow for development, rather than an individual?  Conversely, would we have peanut butter diesel fuel if George Washington Carver had won the Lemelson prize?


1 Comment

  1. Alex said,

    February 27, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    I think you missed that it’s a student prize, and more specifically a MIT student prize. So only so much money is available from the university, I’m sure, and the money goes to the winner, not his research. As a senior (or even now at the age of grad students also eligible to win the prize), I’m sure you would be more than happy to get $30,000 for doing good work. Were this money to fund research it would definitely be inadequate, or if it were a national competition I’m sure the prize would be larger.

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