£10m Longitude Prize aims "to help solve the greatest issues of our time"

To celebrate 300 years since the original Longitude Prize to solve the problem of inaccurate naval navigation, the BBC and Nesta have announced a new prize aimed at solving on of six crucial problems facing humanity.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

What would you do if you only had £10m to save humanity? Doesn't sound like much, does it? Yet that's the amount that the BBC and Nesta (the charity that promotes innovation in science, technology and the arts) are offering to anyone who wins the Longitude Prize, announced today, in a chosen topic to be voted on by the public.

It's named after the original Longitude Prize, which was offered by the British government in 1714 to solve a problem that had emerged as transatlantic voyages became more common - that is, figuring out where a ship was. Figuring out latitude (that's how far north or south of the equator you are) is easy, as all it takes is a measurement of how high the Sun is in the sky combined with a knowledge of which day of the year it is. Longitude, though, was a matter of dead reckoning, and that would often cause voyages to end in disaster. John Harrison, a carpenter and self-taught clocksmith, eventually won the £20,000 prize in 1765 for his maritime chronometer.

The new Longitude Prize, as described by BBC director-general Tony Hall at its announcement today at New Broadcasting House, is also designed to tackle some of the most acute problems facing human civilisation in 2014 - and, thankfully, its intention is more philanthropic than the Empire-driven motives of the British government in the 18th century. The Prize will be formally announced by a special episode of Horizon on 22 May, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the BBC's flagship popular science program.

Hall said:

What's really exciting about the Longitude Prize 300 years on in 2014 is that there might be another modern-day John Harrison somewhere out there - someone who will be inspired to change our world fundamentally, and they may not even know that they're a scientist."

The Longitude Prize board, led by astronomer-royal Lord Rees, has put forward six ideas as candidates for the prize's focus:

  • Antibiotic resistance: Our ability to combat bacterial infections is estimated to be at risk of becoming redundant within 20 years if new drugs are not developed. The prize would go to the inventor of a test that can be used to quickly and cheaply test for antibiotic infections, reducing the number of antibiotics prescribed to patients who do not need them, and reducing antibiotic effectiveness.
  • Carbon-neutral flight: Long haul flights are extremely pollutive, but the best solar- and battery-powered flight technology is too bulky or weedy to scale up to the size of current passenger jets. The prize would go to anyone who can demonstrate a scaleable carbon-neutral flight from London to Edinburgh.
  • Dementia care: One in three people experience dementia beyond the age of 65, and as the number of elderly people increases (thanks to the defeat of other diseases), they will become an increasing burden on friends, family and the wider economy. The prize would go to anyone who developed intelligent technology that can let people with dementia live independent lives.
  • Food security: Current farming methods are very inefficient - it takes ten kilos of grain to produce one kilo of beef, for example. The prize would go to "the next big food innovation", something that would mean that high-protein and high-nutrition food could be produced for relatively low cost (like GM crops that produce fish oils).
  • Paralysis: A person is paralysed in the UK once every eight hours, but spinal medicine is still relatively impotent when it comes to restoring lost bodily functions. The prize would go to a technology, like a robotic exoskeleton, that can give paralysed people the ability to live their lives in the same way as able-bodied people.
  • Water security: "44 per cent of the world’s population and 28 per cent of the world’s agriculture are in regions of the world where water is scarce," claims Nesta. The prize would go to the inventor of a cheap, quick, reusable desalination method.

The money on offer isn't much compared to the size of the tasks at hand, which gives several different ways of assessing which topic is "most" deserving. Clearly, antibiotics, water and food security are going to affect more of humanity than the other three - but with attached costs that are equally massive (for example, a pharmaceutical company can expect to lose an average of $50m from researching, developing and selling a new strain of antibiotic, with little hope of making that money back). Does that mean it makes more sense to vote for the less daunting targets? Or, rather, should we hope that the solution comes from an unexpected, unusual and - most importantly - cheap direction?

Such discoveries do still happen. Jack Andraka was only 15 when he invented a new, reliable, an astonishingly cheap (only 3p a go) test for pancreatic cancer, and he was born after Jurassic Park came out. There is also the factor, as astronomer royal Lord Rees pointed out in his speech at the prize's announcement, of the prestige that would come from winning. "The prize money is a substantial incentive," he said, "and for big companies, the publicity is the incentive."

So choose wisely. The vote opens after Horizon on Thursday, and closes on 25 June.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.