Open Letter to Gotham Prize

The Gotham Prize is a laudable new effort to provide incentive for new approaches to cancer.  In response to their recent announcement of their first awards, I have sent them the following open letter.  If you would like to express your own opinion on the matter, I encourage you to provide your feedback to them directly from their contact page.

Dear Gotham Prize Board,

Congratulations on your first set of awards, and congratulations to Drs. Varshavsky and Carol on their respective prizes.  I am a big fan of the prize approach and applaud the Gotham Prize for its pioneering effort in this regard.

I’d like to express my concern, however, on the pre-qualification process.

As you know, whenever you pre-screen ideas, the backgrounds and biases of those doing the screening will inevitably bias the results and eliminate potentially some of the most innovative and groundbreaking approaches.  If the decision process itself is good, there needn’t be a pre-qualification process.

Additionally, I find it hard to believe that anonymity (as is claimed in your FAQ) can be maintained in all cases, and by having an additional barrier for non-standard and “disruptive” approaches to reach the final evaluation process, the problem of bias becomes exacerbated.  It would be nice if anonymity were truly possible, but often times an idea or approach has a certain “signature” quality to it (either in its writing style, content or reference network) that belies the identity of its creator(s).  I fear that those who are on the fringes but who have been doing work and are somewhat known will be discriminated against, while those who have never published or spoken publicly about their ideas will gain unfair advantage via the pre-qualification process.

One benefit of allowing all comers is that ideas that have been vetted publicly and refined based on criticism have a higher likelihood of effectiveness than entirely new approaches that have not been vetted at all (and by virtue of which may seem more pristine and effective than they really are).  And just because an earlier incarnation of an idea/approach was flawed does not mean that it doesn’t deserve a thorough new look.  Sadly, human nature biases us all against ideas we once passed judgment on, despite new refinements in either the idea or our own understanding.

I hope you will consider the elimination of the pre-qualification process and also consider a more open award decision process than currently exists, possibly guided by your expert Board, but not limited to it.  At the very least, a transparent process is better than a closed one and will allow you to avoid certain inevitable criticisms and pressures.  Most importantly such changes will give confidence to courageous and creative individuals that your methods are fair and open-minded, which will in turn yield you more and better submissions over time.


–Rafe Furst

  • UPDATE: the organization responded as follows…

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. From the beginning, we considered making the process completely open but decided that there needs to be some filtering. Otherwise, many serious and important ideas would get lost among the many inappropriate ideas. We all recognize there will be some bias, but we do our best. Please note that the submissions are NOT anonymous to the advisory board, but the board has been instructed not to take into account the qualifications of the person submitting, just the idea. Once an idea is posted, it is anonymous (unless the poster decides to reveal his/her identity).

    We encourage ideas from anyone–even those at the ‘fringes’. While mainstream ideas may appear to be more acceptable, we have tried to focus on novelty. However, being at the ‘fringe’ could be an advantage if the idea is truly novel.