The Longitude Prize: solving the ‘greatest challenges facing humanity’

The Longitude Prize 2014, a challenge with a prize fund of £10 million, has recently been launched to help solve one of the greatest issues facing humankind. The challenge will be chosen by the British public and any solution meeting the criteria set by the Longitude Committee over the next 5 years will then be able to win part of the £10 million prize pot.

John Harrison, original recipient of the Longitude Prize

The competition idea is based on the original Longitude Prize, a reward offered in 1714 by the British government for a method that could determine a ship’s precise location while at sea. The main recipient of the prize was John Harrison who collected £15,315 in 1765 for his chronometer, a clock that kept accurate time at sea1. 300 years later, rather than being chosen by the government alone, the remit for this Longitude Prize is to be decided by public vote from the following 6 global problems:

 

 

  • Flight – How can we fly without damaging the environment?
  • Food – How can we ensure everyone has nutritious sustainable food?
  • Antibiotics – How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?
  • Paralysis – How can we restore movement to those with paralysis?
  • Water – How can we ensure everyone has access to safe and clean water?
  • Dementia – How can we help people with dementia live independently for longer?

Longitude Prize 2014: six categories will compete for a £10 million prize fund.

On first glance, some of these categories seem to be really broad, and don’t present a single problem to be solved. Take for instance “food”, as it’s a relevant challenge to the work being undertaken at the John Innes Centre. Ensuring a nutritious and sustainable food supply involves many different areas: the development of farming techniques utilising new technologies, breeding of crops improved in nutrient content that can be productive despite different environmental stresses, development of plant pest and pathogen control… the list could go on.

Delving deeper, it does seem that once a section is chosen, the remit will become more specific; for example if antibiotics wins the vote, the challenge will be to create a cheap, accurate, rapid, and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections that will allow doctors and nurses world-wide to administer antibiotics only when they are needed. However I am not sure all these areas can be simplified quite so easily. It will be interesting to see the specifics set by the Longitude Committee after a category is eventually decided. Perhaps leaving the problem open-ended will actually encourage a more diverse array of solutions from areas that wouldn’t conventionally be considered. The answer to the original longitude question was expected to come from experts in astronomy, but Harrison was a self-educated Yorkshire carpenter and watchmaker2 who believed his clock idea could change ocean navigation. Solutions can come from unexpected places.

Harrison’s Chronometer accurately kept time at sea to enable longitude calculations. What will the next winner of the Longitude Prize look like?

Anybody with an idea for a solution will have to move quickly; at present the prize will only be open for 5 years. Though this may seem like a long time, science and technology can take a while to develop to the point of usefulness (my own experiences of how long protocol optimisation takes in order to start getting results are testament to this!). It could be tight to see a project from birth to completion in 5 years alone that could provide a solution to these broad questions. Though technology has progressed since the original prize – Harrison took over 40 years to develop his chronometer and then convince the Government to pay out- it is likely that any winning project is already in the pipeline and beginning to be developed, rather than being inspired solely by the Longitude Prize.

There is a problem of whether the Longitude 2014 themes need to be incentivised any more; most of these broad areas already correlate with the strategic targets that UK Research Councils have developed and are encouraging research in. We already know what the main problems are, so why don’t we just get on with it?3 There is the argument that this vast sum of money will encourage external investors, such as industry, to work on these problems for the good of all, but surely if these areas are profitable at all industry will already be involved. The promise of £10 million that will be judged against some as-yet unknown goals may not be enough to incentivise them to do more. And how much is £10 million actually worth to them? For comparison, the total cost to take a drug from the development stages to market is estimated to be between £55 million and £530 million4. Compared to this, £10 million is nothing5, especially if there is the possibility of splitting it between different contributors, as the original prize was (alongside Harrison, nine other people received various smaller amounts for their contributions towards a solution).

Back in 1714, a great bonus of the prize was that anyone could win; it wasn’t just open to big businesses or well-renowned scientists, but anyone with a good idea that could prove its usefulness. The fact that the prize fund isn’t amazingly vast should in fact attract solutions from many different organisations besides big companies, be that small businesses, universities or research groups, and hopefully inspire the same spirit of innovation that the Longitude Prize did 300 years ago. All solutions, no matter where they are from, should be encouraged, as these issues affect all of us.

The use of a public vote in the 2014 Longitude Prize is a good way of getting the public involved in the huge science and technology challenges we face today. Back in 1714 the public were well aware of the need for accurate navigation at sea; a naval disaster in 1707 led to the sinking of an entire British Naval fleet off the isles of Scilly as the sailors aboard could not accurately determine their location6. Today it should be easier than ever to identify problems facing the world – carbon emissions, dementia, antibiotic resistance, famine, drought and paralysis are all issues that make their way into the headlines. However, placing these clearly in a scientific context has a benefit for public understanding of science and technology, as well as encouraging discussions as to what should be done about them. The open nature of the prize and the clear communication that there are major issues that we face in the future that we don’t have the answers to will bring these issues closer to home. People will be encouraged to think about what they could to do help rather than depending on the government, or unknown scientists in secret laboratories to deal with world issues. The prize should also inspire public debate about what we need to focus on as we travel further into the 21st century.

Though it is a little odd to think that the greatest challenge facing modern Britain could be decided in much the same way as a reality TV show winner, it will be interesting to see what the public reaction will be; how much discussion it will inspire and how many people will vote. Whatever the winner, the British public should be more aware of the problems that face us that science and technology have a vital role in tackling. It will be interesting to see what the public chooses to be its number one issue for the Longitude Prize, and what science and technology can develop within the next 5 years that can start to tackle this problem.

Longitude prize voting is open ‘till the 25th June 2014, visit www.longitudeprize.org for more information.

  1. It is actually disputed whether Harrison ever actually won the prize, or whether it was even a prize at all! http://blogs.rmg.co.uk/longitude/2012/03/07/there-was-no-such-thing-as-the-longitude-prize/
  2. Information on John Harrison and the original Longitude  prizehttp://www.rmg.co.uk/explore/astronomy-and-time/time-facts/harrison#prize
  3. Philip Ball, Prospect magazine “The Longitude Prize is a Waste of Time”http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/ball/the-longitude-prize-is-a-waste-of-time/
  4. “The cost of drug development: a systemic review”, Morgan et al, Health Policy, 2011http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168851010003659
  5. For reference, using the same figures as Richard Payne in “Science versus the Financial Crisis” below, £10 million would fund 185 PhD students for the entirety of their PhD. https://johninnessvc.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/science-versus-the-financial-crisis/
  6. The Scilly naval disaster of 1707 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scilly_naval_disaster_of_1707

by Claire Drurey- a third year PhD Student in the lab of Prof Saskia Hogenhout

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