FameLabbers thinking Longitudinally

Whilst Cheltenham Science Festival was caught up in the culmination of FameLab International 2014 and the hunt to find some of the world’s greatest young science communicators, another big science engagement story was making headlines across the UK. The 2014 Longitude Prize, put together by NESTA, to celebrate the 300 year anniversary of the original Longitude Prize for global navigation and to encourage significant new advances in science and engineering.

In a clever twist, the aim of the £10 million prize will be decided not by experts or officials, but by the British public, asked to choose just one of six worthy challenges that we are currently facing. Unsurprisingly, the prize has created a lot of arguments and controversy with many feeling that it would be better to invest this money directly into research, rather than offering it up as a reward. Yet, in-line with its predecessor Longitude Act where in 1714 the British government set out the scientific challenge of how to pinpoint a ship’s location at sea part of the goal of Longitude 2014 is to encourage innovation and invention from unlikely areas, not simply to support existing research groups. Ultimately it aims to engage with everyone in the UK, not just the scientists and engineers.

Since the prize was announced, experts from across science, engineering, research and industry have been invited to have their say on the prize. Often expressing support for the underlying idea and the involvement of the wider populace, but also critical of the choices presented and the wisdom behind such a large expenditure.

Beyond the experts, Longitude has been sparking discussions up and down the country. I even found my family making their cases for the different options over the dinner table! And so it was that, following FameLab International, I asked some of the participants for their views on the Longitude Prize. 

Caroline Shenton-Taylor, FameLab UK champion 2014, has been watching the media coverage with interest. Although she didn’t want to reveal her chosen causeshe did put together the following post to explain the ethos behind Longitude and why everyone should take the opportunity to vote in the few days remaining before 19:10PM BST 25th June.

Build tomorrow today by Caroline Shenton-Taylor (UK winner 2014)

If you could solve one of the world’s problems, would you do it for free? What would drive you onwards through the months, years or decades of studious effort?

If you need motivation, then the Longitude Prize is offering 10 million pounds for solving one of today’s greatest problems. The Longitude Committee have selected six of the most important challenges faced by humanity across the themes of paralysis, dementia, water, food, flight and antibiotics. One of these will be chosen shortly by public vote, as the sole area eligible to attempt to win the Prize. 

To canvas our vote, each challenge presents statistics that are hard to ignore: In the UK someone is paralysed every 8 hours; by 2050 approximately 135 million people will have dementia; 44% of us live in a part of the world where water is scarce; one in eight of us are underfed; the next 50 years could see air travel contribute 15% to our carbon emissions and antibiotics have added 20 years to an average life span but could soon become ineffective.  

Like many I struggle to pick a winner because allowing five areas to lose out is difficult. Solving any of these challenges seems worthy, regardless of a cash prize. 

Incentivising science and technology in this way is not new. For example, the Orteig Prize was awarded for crossing the Atlantic in a plane in 1927.  Reportedly, for every dollar awarded in prize money, sixteen dollars were generated within the aviation industry. 

Likewise the namesake of this competition, the (original) Longitude Prize, established 300 years ago, sought the development of a method which precisely measured longitude, permitting accurate global navigation. Back then the committee had the discretion to award advances to promising methods; they could also reward incremental steps in progress - even if the overall challenge had not been solved. 

It is interesting to wonder what would happen if the £10 million 2014 Longitude Prize had instead been offered as a research fund. Perhaps within the rules financial advances and incremental achievements will once again be allowed, presenting opportunities for the Prize to support promising research. This will only become clear on closure of the public vote, when the committee will meet to define the terms of the Prize in the chosen area.  

Building tomorrow today is expensive. However, although a huge sum, providing £10 million each to all six areas would actually require less than 1% of the amount we spent on UK lottery tickets in 2013. Regardless of whether the money is won, who wins it, or what they choose to use it for, hopefully the selected area will benefit from flourishing research and commercial interest.

For those involved, as with all scientific discoveries, I suspect the real prize will be developing the solution to a difficult problem.

Other FameLab champions were more critical of the prize, and wondered if some of the challenges presented by the Longitude prize might be better solved through social or political rethinking. They also asked how prizes like this could be justified in the face of cuts to research funding across many fields and the potential future issues for humanity and the health of the planet. Most significantly perhaps, as with many experts, the solvability of these problems was an issue. With such major global issues facing us, can we really expect any of them to be solved soon?

Several of the finalists did see the value of involving everyone in scientific decision making. Research has alwaysbeen guided by public opinion. We invest the most time and money into the issues that we are most worried about. From this point of view, the selection of the prize is naturally fascinating to many scientists who will be eagerly awaiting the announcement of the results.

The Irish champion, Adam Murphy, decided to write a short piece in support of his chosen cause. The case for Flight has been overlooked by many, due to its seemingly frivolous title, yet underneath there are some fundamental world issues desperately in need of attention.

More than just wings by Adam Murphy (Ireland winner 2014)

How do you choose between six incredibly worthy topics? Well, for me there’s one option that is a clear winner. Flight.

On the surface, building a new plane seems like a mediocre goal. but it could not be more important. Climate change is one of the greatest problems we face, and we’re doing a lot to combat it. We do everything we can to curtail our car carbon emissions. However, people tend not to look up. We do nothing to change our flying habits.

In 1992, the total amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere that was due to aviation was estimated to be 1%, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you realise that’s really only happened in the last 50 years or so. Not to mention the other greenhouse gases air travel releases. Currently, up to 9% of greenhouse gas emissions are due to aviation. And these emissions have only been on the rise. Between 1990 and 2006, greenhouse gas emissions due to aviation increased by 87%. That trend needs to change.

Per passenger, an aircraft releases about the same amount of carbon dioxide per kilometre as a standard family car. So 200 passengers all travelling for even an hour…that can really add up. The UK is relatively well situated, most of the flights we make are fairly short, travelling within the country, or to other parts of Europe, but even eliminating the emissions from these flights could drastically improve our outlook. 

Currently international air travel is not under the Kyoto Treaty, designed to cut our carbon emissions. So if something’s going to be done we need to stand up and do it ourselves.The goal of the Flight Longitude prize would be to build an aircraft comparable to current commercial aircraft, but almost carbon neutral and able to at least make the flight from London to Edinburgh. Aircraft today rely nearly exclusively on fossil fuels, but that’s not to say the prize is unwinnable! There’s a lot of promising work in biofuels and ethanol fuels, as well as improving fuel efficiency. Part of why I’m urging people to vote for flight is that I genuinely think it’s winnable in a realistic time frame.

The UK is the perfect place to take the lead in this. Heathrow is the fifth largest airport in the world and handles more international passengers than any other. Nearly 1300 planes take off and land in Heathrow every day. Imagine the difference to our environment if each one of those planes could be nearly carbon neutral.

There are few problems more pressing than climate change. It will affect all of us and if we continue to bury our heads in the sand it may destroy us. That more than anything else is why I would urge you to vote Flight. If we can’t help our climate, all the other problems may become moot.

So, choose which case you will, and vote now as time is almost up. Keep this in mind though; the first Longitude Prize changed the face of the world, Longitude 2014 will almost certainly do the same. How will you decide to build tomorrow?