Longitude Prize 2014: a vote for the future of British science

May 22, 2014
Holden Frith

Tonight's Horizon launches a new Longitude Prize to tackle the world's great problems

You can't fault the ambition. While most programmes mark their milestones with celebrity cameos and self-congratulatory compilation tapes, Horizon is celebrating its 50th anniversary by setting out to secure the future of humanity.

Or rather, by inviting you to have a go. Tonight's edition introduces the Longitude Prize 2014, which will award £10m to anyone who can solve one of six challenges blighting human life – or threatening to extinguish it altogether.

Inspiration comes from the original Longitude Prize, established by Parliament in 1714, which offered £20,000 (about £2.5m in today's money) to the first person who could calculate a ship's position in open water to within 30 nautical miles. It was the defining technical problem of the age, and solving it opened up the new trade routes that ushered in the first age of globalisation.

In 2014, however, the format has been tweaked for modern sensibilities. Rather than a gauntlet thrown down from on high, the new prize starts with an invitation to choose between the six potential challenges set out on tonight’s programme. Once the text-message votes have been counted, the subject of the contest will be announced on The One Show.

The faux democracy is the only forced note in a genuinely exciting project. The public vote may generate interest and engagement, but it also comes with a whiff of talent show indignity. A series of crises parade before us, touting for phone votes, and on a whim we have to decide between Team #Paralysis and Team #Dementia.

The first pitch proposes that the prize should address the problem of antibiotic resistance, which threatens to render impotent drugs that have saved more lives than any other, thereby turning treatable illnesses back into everyday killers. It's hard to think of a more deserving cause – until watching pitch number two, which seeks an end to global malnutrition.

Perhaps I’m being squeamish. Worthy ideas have always had to fight for their share of a finite budget and the vote merely dramatises that process. Even so, forcing them to battle it out in public seems unnecessarily cruel.

Why not try to solve all six of them? The government could underwrite the prize fund, as its 18th Century predecessor did the first time around. For the relatively piddling sum of £50m, it would not only signal support for British science and engineering, but might also draw out previously untapped talent.

That's why the Longitude Prize still has the power to excite. The original was eventually claimed by John Harrison, a Yorkshire clockmaker who lived and worked far beyond the orbit of the Astronomer Royal, who expected a solution to the problem of longitude from within his own circle.

One of the great complaints about modern scientific work is that it has become too specialised and abstracted for more than a few people to grasp it. If the 21st-century Longitude Prize throws up a solution as elegant and effective as John Harrison's marine chronometer – a masterful confection of art and engineering – it will be money well spent.

Horizon: The £10m Challenge is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm

Holden Frith tweets at twitter.com/holdenfrith

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