Longitude Prize 2014 goes live
This week Longitude Prize 2014 has gone live, with a great launch by the BBC and media coverage all over the world.
The prize is unique in several ways. There can’t be many examples of a 300 year old prize or committee being revived, and yet feeling entirely contemporary. There are remarkably few examples of the public being asked to have their say on scientific priorities. And there are still relatively few chunks of research funding opened up to anyone, anywhere to apply based on merit.
For us Longitude is a natural progression of our work on prizes over the last few years, including the creation of the Centre for Challenge Prizes, various events and publications - including Challenge Prizes: A practice guide. Prizes can’t solve everything – but they should definitely be one of the tools used by public funders (something like 5% of the total might be appropriate – at the moment it’s below 0.1%).
The excitement that is already building shows that there is an appetite for doing and thinking about science in new ways. The public, understandably, wants to see brilliant minds focused on really important issues. Yet a high proportion of scientific activity goes to tasks far removed from these priorities – half of all public spending on R&D for example, goes to the military, while a fair amount of business R&D goes to tasks that are not exactly in the public interest, like how to pump more sugar into foods.
One of the implicit messages of Longitude Prize 2014 is that we need to better match brainpower to really important tasks. Another is that science and technology policy shouldn’t only be a matter for the experts, though of course it should be guided by deep expertise. We’ll be shortly publishing detailed analysis of British public attitudes to science funding, which confirms that bigger commitments from public spending and taxes will require a different way of talking about science, and much more engagement with the public. The very ‘insider’, elite channels, which have served British science reasonably well in recent years, have reached their limits.
Any gripes about Longitude Prize 2014 have mainly centred around the question of how to balance serious expertise with public engagement. On the one hand, there have been complaints that public involvement somehow cheapens science (the X Factor effect); on the other hand, there are complaints that because the six options have been determined by a committee of scientists, they’re not really open to genuine public engagement. Some writers have even managed to take both positions simultaneously. There’s also been the comment that technical fixes can’t on their own solve big problems like world hunger, which is of course a statement of the bleeding obvious.
All along we’ve tried to balance some different objectives: to excite the public; to deal with topics that really are suitable for challenge prizes; and to tap into the very best scientific knowledge. I think we’ve struck a pretty good balance. We’ve worked with the Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, and leading figures from science like Professor Dame Sally Davies, chief medical advisor, and over 100 academic scientists. But we’ve also worked with figures from the media like David Rowan, Editor of Wired, and collaborated closely with the BBC.
Today’s Horizon programme (at 9pm on BBC2) sets out the options in more detail, before voting opens up to the public. We hope this will be the start of a journey that will lead to some serious breakthroughs in whatever field is chosen – but also to positive changes in how science is done, funded and communicated.