A new report from the Congressional Research Service examines the government’s use of “grand challenges” or monetary prizes to provide incentives for technological advancement. In quite a few cases, such incentives have inspired or accelerated new technology breakthroughs — in lightweight power supplies and autonomous unmanned vehicles, for example. In other cases, the proffered prizes have gone unclaimed because the challenge was not met, as in a recent competition to generate breathable oxygen from simulated lunar soil. In any case, it seems likely that the new CRS report is the best thing ever written on the subject. See “Federally Funded Innovation Inducement Prizes” (pdf), June 29, 2009.
Another new CRS report considers the mundane but significant fact that the US Postal Service may soon close thousands of post office branches and stations due to declining demand and volume. This exhaustive report, once again, is almost certainly the best, most informative treatment of its chosen subject. See “Post Office and Retail Postal Facility Closures: Overview and Issues for Congress” (pdf), July 23, 2009.
Despite the efforts of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Sen. John McCain and a few others, there appears to be little near-term prospect that Congress will permit direct public access to CRS reports like these. Fortunately, routine unauthorized disclosures of the reports continue to meet the need fairly well.
See also, lately (all pdf):
“Issues Regarding a National Land Parcel Database,” July 22, 2009.
“Federal Research and Development Funding: FY2010,” July 15, 2009.
“The U.S. Newspaper Industry in Transition,” July 8, 2009.