I really don’t want to seem curmudgeonly about this. But when I was forwarded the announcement of the forthcoming launch of the Longitude 2014 Prize at the BBC on 19 May, I had to read it several times just to get some rough idea of what this prize is supposed to be all about. Then I followed up on the details, and it just got worse. I won’t totally rule out the possibility that something worthwhile might come of it all, but even if it does (and I’m not optimistic), the marketing is disastrous. It almost seems as though no one really wants to admit the truth of what the project is all about. And so I fear that my piece on the Prospect blog, of which the pre-edited version follows below, is a little cross.
Ah, the wisdom of crowds. Or is that the madness? I’m not sure any more. Do we trust the crowd to find its collective way to the perfect answer to a challenge? Or do we fear that it will tip into irrational herding behaviour and lose its grip on reality?
And do we really care? For mad or wise, the crowd is where it’s at. You know, democracy, the voice of the people, all that. So never mind I’m a Celebrity and Strictly Come Dancing – why not let the masses decide science policy?
"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”, says David Cameron, showing that he has his finger on the pulse – or at least, that he has some vague notion that, you know, these days there’s this sort of interactive voting thing that’s popular with the masses. “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."
Oh, you may mock. But there’s some serious thought behind Cameron’s announcement last year of the so-called Longitude 2014 Prize. Longitude? I’ll come back to that. So you see, “It is vital” (according to the announcement of the prize on the Sciencewise website) “that in the 21st Century the challenges set are not simply those framed by academics or business leaders, but rather that the Committee responsible for overseeing the Prize understands the issues, priorities and views of the full range of stakeholders including the general public. This will be consistent with the Government’s commitment to open and transparent policy making.” You don’t get more open than delegating such policy-making to everyone.
So that’s all good. But who is this Sciencewise through which the good news is being channelled? You have to do a bit of digging there. This organization “provides co-funding and specialist advice and support to Government departments and agencies to develop and commission public dialogue activities in emerging areas of science and technology”. It is managed on behalf of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) by Ricardo-AEA in partnership with the British Science Association and the community participation charity, Involve. So wait, who then is Ricardo-AEA? More Googling reveals that it is a private consultancy.
No matter, back to the Sciencewise announcement. “The project” – that’s Longitude 2014 Prize, do pay attention – “has been divided into phases and the current dialogue project is for the first phase, scoping and framing. Framing here refers to setting out how the project to identify challenges will run and what the areas for the challenges will be. By involving the public in this early scoping phase we can be confident that the issues and challenges set by Longitude 14 [ah, that has a nice ring to it] will be consistent with issues that are of public concern… The Longitude 14 prize will serve to inform policy that aims to encourage businesses, universities and others to find a solution to some of the major societal challenges of the day… As the project moves from the scoping to a public debate, voting, and challenge setting phases, a range of tools will be used to ensure the public are engaged and excited by the project.”
Have I landed in a scene from W1A, the glorious spoof on management-speak and corporate-think now infecting the BBC? Or are we really to understand that, after due scoping and framing, the public are going to vote on the question of what businesses, universities and others (which others?) should be spending their money on, with much the same mindset as they watch, you know, dogs jumping over poles or something?
OK, let’s get a little balance. Any initiative that has as its chairman Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and ex-president of the Royal Society, who can smell a rotten egg from fifty paces, can’t be all bad (although one wonders how much direct input Rees has been allowed so far). He will head an “illustrious committee”, managed by the innovation charity Nesta. And we should admit that paternalistic “we know what’s best for you” government doesn’t have a great record for deciding what is important in science innovation either: the UK has a pretty poor track record of capitalizing on the creativity of its scientists. The current decision to pour money into research on the news “wonder material” graphene, pioneered in Manchester, smacks slightly of a panicky determination not to let this history repeat itself.
But if our alternatives are either to delegate decisions to faceless bureaucrats behind closed doors in Whitehall, or to throw the vote open by aping reality TV, we are not doing a lot for the image of democracy in action.
Can we just remember that the original Longitude Prize of 1714, on which this current project is allegedly modelled, was not itself the result of a group vote for the most pressing of technological issues of its time? The difficulty of determining navigation at sea was already widely recognized by the authorities of the time as a serious problem; the “open-source” nature of the prize was all about the solution, not about identifying the problem in the first place. And cracking that problem was primarily about securing naval supremacy and expanding trade and colonial power. If you had asked the population, they might have been more concerned about sanitation, basic healthcare (even the concept is of course anachronistic), or their lack of voting rights on anything at all.
Besides, no one won the Longitude Prize. (In fact, as science historian Rebekah Higgitt has argued, it’s not clear that there was ever really a “prize” as such at all.) Despite Cameron’s claim that it was awarded to the clockmaker John Harrison, he was never officially given that honour. After tireless campaigning to have his achievements recognized, he finally managed to wring the equivalent money out of a reluctant Parliament, but the Board of Longitude stressed that this was a bountiful gesture to acknowledge Harrison’s efforts, not the “prize” itself. Prospective contenders for the reincarnated award might not be encouraged by this history.
What I object to most of all, however, is not the ridiculous language in which this prize has been dressed, not the poor history with which it has been framed, not the paltry million quid or so that is at stake, not even the question of who chooses the objective. It is the whole notion of a competition to find the biggest challenge our technologies face. There is no single grand challenge into which we must pour millions. It’s a whole lot worse than that. The climate is changing, and to solve that alone we will need a whole raft of technological, economic and social measures. Our antibiotics are becoming useless. We lack cures for some of the most widespread and debilitating diseases on the planet. Billions of people lack access to safe drinking water. This is not rocket science (please don't let the decision be that we must get on and populate Mars...) – we know perfectly well what the problems are, and how serious they are. We don’t need to dress them up for a beauty pageant so that we can crown a winner. We should just get on with the job.