Thursday, December 30, 2010

"Government Challenges, Your Solutions"

That is the slogan of the new government website, The website is a result of the recently passed America Competes Act, with the intention to transition government support of private R&D away from paying for inputs to paying for outcomes. The idea is that they will pay out cash rewards to those who meet certain challenges, similar to the famed X-Prize for commercial space flight. You go to the website, find a government challenge, and then submit your entry. When I read about this new program in Slate ("Can Washington Get Amercia's Economy Moving Again with Cash Rewards?"), it sounded like a positive change to government financing of R&D, so I was optimistic.

However, going to the website (which I highly recommend you do) and picking over the different prizes, it is difficult to come away impressed. Though there are some challenges with arguable social value, but a lot of them are bizarre marketing programs.

For instance, I naturally clicked on the "economic" challenges. The first challenge offered was the "'How Has Social Security Made A Difference In Your Life' Video Contest":
Not a good start, right? This of course, wet my appetite for what other creative challenges they expect to have large positive externalities. The organizations list had a hyperlink to challenges sponsored by the USDA, a group that usually gets a mention in the price control section of many econ textbooks. I learn from it that there are no existing cookbooks for children:

That one pays up to $12,000, an amount which could basically buy out the entire cookbook section of your local Barnes and Nobles.

What about the Department of Defense? Perhaps it carries some challenges for improving radar technology, or more protective body suits for soldiers? Software to better teach languages important to the intelligence community? Click the link and here is your first one, a Press Holiday Scavenger Hunt!
Yikes! Going back to the homepage, I quickly come across two more gems in their scrolling marquee:
You see, Taxpayer, stop asking for your money back and start enjoying an augmented reality photo in the National Archives!!

For this last one, I actually do use a lot of government data and I think it does provide some social value, but somehow I cannot find it in me to write a love sonnet about Census data. At the very least, even if the government data does create value, it is not clear to me how a love sonnet does. most definitely gets the TPS Seal of Approval.