The Longitude Prize: Science’s Hunger Games

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What sort of dystopian austerity logic asks the public to vote on whether they want to fund research on water or food security?

The new Longitude Prize, that’s what, brought to you by NESTA, the BBC and the UK’s Technology Strategy Board. Based on the Longitude Prize of 1714, this 21st century version was announced by David Cameron last summer as part of Britain’s leadership of the G8. It’s in the news again because the British public are being asked via a special 50th anniversary edition of Horizon, which of a set of so-called ‘grand challenges’ they think the prize should address.

Whereas the original Longitude Prize wanted to determine a ship’s longitude at sea, we have a new set of challenges facing us today. As Cameron put it last year: “There are so many problems in our world that need that amazing solution, whether it is a cure for dementia, solving the problem of diabetes, having a flight from Britain to New York that’s carbon free.”

And whereas the original prize had a Board of Longitude to administer the scheme, the 2014 event wants to add a bit of 21st century openness to the equation. A new board was established – chaired by Astronomer Royal Martin Rees – and they’ve produced a new shortlist of challenges to be put to the public. Despite the board’s wide and world renowned set of expertise, they don’t seem to have travelled much beyond the Prime Minister’s initial suggestions. Diabetes has gone (not sure if the sugar lobby will be delighted or annoyed at that) but dementia and environmentally friendly flight are there, along with both food and water security, the risk of antibiotics resistance and the question of how can we might restore movement to someone with paralysis.

Again, to quote Mr Cameron last year: “I’m thinking of something – Britain’s Got Talent, you know, you switch on the TV and you watch the dog jumping over the pole, or whatever it is. Let’s actually get the nation engaged on what the biggest problems are in science and in our lives that we need to crack, with a multi-million pound prize to then help us do that.” And in many ways this is a laudable aim. People have been attempting to engage the public with the slippery and often esoteric issue of research funding for years. But is a TV-show vote really the way to do it?

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Science writer Philip Ball for one has laughed at the idea that we should treat science policy with the same mindset as ‘the dog jumping over the pole’. In response, Dame Profressor Athene Donald, who is on the prize committee, argued that the social challenges science sets its mind to should be chosen by more voices than just science alone. She’s right, and a lot more has gone into this than just the TV vote; there’s a much more developed Sciencewise project informing the work too.

Still, the public role has been quite controlled throughout – it’s the pre-scripted non-involvement of a pantomime engagement where you might get to shout “HE’S BEHIND YOU” but the romance, jokes and plot twists were all rehearsed weeks back. The schools pack makes the promise to be “no longer spectators” on building the future, but is acting as a “champion” for one of such a limited set of pre-decided topics really offering much involvement? Because they are really limited too.

In many ways, this isn’t a sciencey Britain’s Got Talent, it’s a sciencey Hunger Games. Shall we research water security or food security? YOU DECIDE. What sort of choice is that exactly? Of all the many choices which go into reviewing research ideas – good, useful processes of rejection and encouragement which decide where to put our resources – something as monumentally crass as ‘which challenge we care about most of all’ seems like a very poor point for public engagement.

Moreover, look further afield and this prize comes in a science and technology policy context where our choices over what to research are becoming ever-more curtailed and controlled. Questions are being asked in parliament over the Natural Environment Research Council’s oil and gas innovation strategy. There are mounting concerns about the possible privatisation of the Food and Environment Research Agency; government labs which study bees, GMO safety, tree health and more. On an international level, there’s the 200+ people arrested in Brussels for protesting about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – this is just a handful of examples, but they are all science policy stories which could do with much greater public debate and discussion. And yet instead Horizon are asking us to engage in a TV vote over abstracted grand challenges, as if none of this messy, unruly and sometimes questionable politics of science and technology exists.

And let’s not forget that innovation prizes are so popular with policy-makers and industry because they put the burden of risk on the researcher, not the funder. The idea of a lone genius solving the world’s food crisis from his shed in Oldham is a lovely idea, but it is largely wishful thinking. As Jack Stilgoe argued in terms of the idea of Big Society Science, science is an expensive, equipment-heavy team sport, it comes from large scale work which, above all, requires large scale investment. Really clever science takes time, money and infrastructure – time, money and infrastructure the UK government is wilfully cutting – and the TV prize show format all too readily glosses over this.

There’s also the not insignificant point that several of these challenges could be dealt with via changes to social systems, not a new technical innovation. It’s a cliche to point out that engineering innovation is no panacea for the lack of social infrastructure, but there is a reason why this point is so often repeated. When it comes to dementia, in particular, maybe we could look to heath and social welfare systems before we started flashing a trophy around to find a possible ‘cure’. As bioethicist Richard Ashcroft wrote last year during Cameron’s ‘dementia summit’, we already effective treatment for managing the disease, the problem is delivery and cost. Applying the rhetoric of a war on cancer for dementia sounds strong but “it won’t help the fragmented and incoherent health services deal with dementia better. Indeed, it may fragment efforts further.”

The Longitude Prize 2014 talks a language of inclusion and cash to meet global challenges but is really very limited in its scope, and all around it science and innovation is being cut and enclosed even further. The big flashy show of the event could be an invite for the public to be interested in how we use science and engineering to build our futures. It could, in turn, also be a chance for those who currently hold such purse strings to realise that public engagement really isn’t that scary and try something more adventurous instead. I hope both possibilities turn out to be true. But it looks a lot like bread and circus to distract us from cuts. I find this patronising, and possibly a bit suspect.

If you look at your voter’s choices in the Longitude Prize and feel a bit limited, ignore that particular ballot and, as we approach a general election, ask the political parties vying for your support to commit to increasing public funding of science, and increasing transparency and public engagement with science policy too. Because the rhetorics surrounding this prize are right about one thing, we should have a much richer public debate about how we use science and engineering to build our future.

Dr Alice Bell writes for Popular Science UK every month on science in the media. To read more, download the app – new subscribers get the latest issue, plus the next, free.

Photo: John Harrison’s H4, of the original Longitude Prize, at the 2014 launch.