The Longitude Prize - Championing the scientific citizen
Recently the inaugural Global Science Advice conference brought together the world’s science policy experts for a fascinating series of discussions on the current state and future direction of science advice. In his speech, the conference chair Sir Peter Gluckman spoke about fundamental changes happening in the world of science and of his concern that some scientists did not understand and would fight against these shifts.
The societal value of science has become central to recent policy, with moves towards open access and requirements to indicate potential economic and societal impact. Rather than rely on the unpredictable outcomes of long-term research, governments are increasingly setting explicit goals for scientific research and assembling interdisciplinary groups around them.
The Longitude Prize is intrinsically based around a similar democratisation of science. I am thrilled to be able to say that one of the joys of working on the Longitude Prize has been, despite the concerns of Sir Peter, the enthusiasm of everyone whom we have asked for advice. Busy people with fantastic minds have inevitably proven more than happy to give us their time and expertise for free.
Engaging the public
Why might this be, when there is some dissatisfaction within the research community with the government’s impact agenda? I think that a lot has to do with the Prize’s successful and sophisticated public interaction. It has extended beyond just education towards the idea of a scientific democracy in which everyone can and should engage with the challenges facing us today, their efforts leveraged by engaged scientific experts.
When applying for research funding scientists are required to fill two sides of A4 with a description of their pathways to impact, to be read only by an expert panel whose main priority is research excellence. In contrast, the Longitude Prize recognises that impact is optimised through open public engagement. With the increasing accessibility of traditional and non-traditional media, commentary is no longer restricted to experts and journals. The Prize has mobilised Twitter, blogs, traditional media, Amazon mailing lists, and voting to create a direct link between research and its societal value, between researchers and the public who fund them.
A scientific democracy
The aim of the Longitude Prize is to catalyse a real benefit to society, to achieve a rapid and discernible impact by responding to a democratically identified priority threat. It has elevated ‘impact’ from a box-ticking exercise to a tangible reality grounded in a democratic call for action. When the public voted in large numbers for antibiotic resistance to be the focus of the prize, they both identified a pressing societal need and declaimed their belief that science could help tackle it. A new societal contract was created which emphasised the importance of science to society and of society to science. The UK public demonstrated that their collective voice could mobilise resources to support science, that they could interact with and trust in cutting edge science, and that they would reward advances in this urgent problem area with recognition and gratitude. In return they asked that researchers would respond to this call for action, that science would shoulder the responsibility of helping society tackle the challenges of our era.
The ‘scientific citizen’
The Prize has built on the foundations of the ‘scientific citizen’, the idea that the individual scientist has a responsibility to use their expertise in the service of society, recognising that they are just as much a part of it as the non-expert, with all of the responsibilities and rewards that this infers. Public recognition and socially responsive science are rewarding to both scientists and their publics and are true representations of the value and role of science in modern society.
This shift in the understanding of the impact of science, from a grant application requirement to a democratic prerogative, has generated the enthusiasm from everyone whom the Longitude Prize team have consulted for advice. To all of them, Nesta would like to say a big thank you. Your time and effort has helped to shape the Longitude Prize into a tool which really can change the world for the better. We are used to hearing scientists claim that they are motivated by curiosity to understand how the world works. Now we can look forward to hearing them say that they entered science because they want to help society and to improve people’s lives – in short, to be an upstanding scientific citizen.