Yet, some scientists question prizes as a way to incentivize such innovation. "People want to get some magic payoff from a research program without actually paying for the research program," says climate modeler Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University, who has worked on some of the initial models for the impacts of ocean acidification, noting that the funds devoted to such sensor research have to come from somewhere. "We know what we need to do to protect our oceans, and that is: stop using the atmosphere and oceans as a waste dump. Measuring pH allows us to document the ocean's decline but is largely irrelevant to saving the ocean."
The Ocean Health X PRIZE will run for the next 22 months. The first 12 months will be given to interested teams to develop their concepts. Following that, entrants will be evaluated in lab trials and, ultimately, tested for a month in Puget Sound, an inlet of the Pacific on the Washington State coast. "We will subject all these sensors to all the great wonderful stuff in the water: diurnal changes in pH, temperature and salinity, and all the biofouling that happens," Bunje says. "Puget Sound is one of the more difficult places these things will have to work."
Those finalists for the accuracy prize that survive Puget Sound will then be sent to sea on a research vessel and tasked with assessing pH at a depth of 3,000 meters, among other rigors. The winner or winners will then reap the rewards in summer 2015, by Bunje's calculations. "We can say there is a problem with ocean acidification right now, but that doesn't mean we know what's going to happen when, and certainly not where," he adds. "For everybody from aquaculture to those who monitor coral reef health for tourism, there is real value in having this data."