Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Longitude redux

Nesta responded graciously to my complaints about the Longitude Prize 2014, calling me up to discuss the issues and inviting me to come to the launch on Monday at the BBC. It would have been churlish to refuse.

It was a suitably glitzy affair, introduced by the BBC’s Director General Tony Hall and featuring contributions from Martin Rees and Brian Cox. The event doubled as a (very well earned) celebration of the 50th anniversary of Horizon, the BBC’s flagship science documentary programme. The six challenges selected by the Longitude Committee – a truly impressive collection of folks – were as follows:

- Food: how can we ensure everyone has nutritious sustainable food?
- Flight: how can we fly without damaging the environment?
- Paralysis: how can we restore movement to those with paralysis?
- Antibiotics: how can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?
- Water: how can we ensure everyone has access to safe and clean water?
- Dementia: how can we help people with dementia live independently for longer?

Mostly a fairly predictable selection, then, with a few choices that one might not have anticipated. Which is to say that it is a good and entirely worthy list. The idea now is that, once the winner has been selected from this list, the prize functions as a “challenge prize”, along the lines of the X-Prizes or the challenges promoted by some of the crowd-sourcing companies now in existence, about which I wrote here. Everyone, from multinational companies to garden-shed inventors, will be able to submit their solution, and one of them – if their solution is deemed adequate – will receive the £10m prize money. The criteria for success and for ranking the submissions have yet to be thrashed out, and will of course depend on the challenge.

Martin Rees, who chairs the committee, points out that the prize money is around a thousandth of the annual UK R&D budget, and says one might hope that the results, by stimulating innovative thinking, will have a disproportionately big impact. This seems quite possible, and I do hope he is right. There is surely a role for challenge prizes like this in fostering innovation and problem-solving.

All of the presenters at the BBC event – each of them a regular on Horizon – did a great job of outlining why the challenge they had been assigned was important. These presentations will be fleshed out more fully in a Horizon special tomorrow.

Why, then, did I come away feeling even more vindicated in my criticisms?

It was because the core of my concerns – let’s put behind us the initial publicity which looked as though it had been written by the fictional PR company Perfect Curve, and also the dodgy history with which the prize is framed – are about the whole premise of selecting the final prize challenge by public vote. Much was made of how this will “get the public involved”, how it will democratize science and stimulate wide interest. To object to this aspect of the project could seem elitist, as though to suggest that we should go back to deciding science policy via faceless committees of “experts” behind closed doors.

I’m all for public engagement, and I have much sympathy with Athene Donald, who responded to my criticisms by saying that “scientists should not be arrogant when it comes to public good, thinking they know what's right and what's wrong… Scientists should not pay lip-service to "public engagement with science" and yet not allow the public actually to engage in anything that matters.” Yet this seems to me to be entirely the wrong way to go about making such an attempt at engagement. I feel there is simply a category error here: if popular entertainment can be “democratized”, why not science? Scientists usually go to pains to point out that science is precisely not a democratic process: we don’t have public votes to decide which theories are right. The challenge itself, like science as a whole, should be open to ideas from all comers, judged on merit. Martin Rees pointed out that, unlike art or literary prizes, this one can be judged objectively: one can formulate solid, supportable and perhaps even quantifiable grounds for selecting a winner from the submissions. That is largely true. So why introduce a subjective element into setting up the challenge is in the first place? Why assemble an expert panel to pick the shortlist but not the final winner? This seems to me a sop to public sentiment, likely to end up being patronizing (yes you, the common people, can decide!) rather than empowering.

But my real complaint isn’t about whether the voting procedure is fit for purpose – that is, about the issue of who gets a vote. It is about having a voting procedure at all. I find that deeply objectionable, and the launch further deepened that feeling.

The idea that the needs and dignity of thousands of people with paralysis or dementia have to be placed in a horse race against the needs of billions of people without access to safe water, or the very reasonable desire of wealthier citizens to be able to fly without contributing to global warming should compete with the risks of malnutrition faced by millions in poorer nations because of inadequate food supplies, seems to me to be in bad taste. It feels like – indeed, it is disturbingly close to – asking for a public vote on whether the limited NHS coffers should be used to help people with kidney failure or people with cancer. Choices have to be made, for sure, and they are hard – but for that very reason, we shouldn’t be turning them into a beauty pageant.

As I said to one of the committee in an email after my piece was posted, it feels rather as though we are being asked to vote on which of our family members to save from a fire. The hope, no doubt, is that by introducing the contenders, others (such as rich philanthropists) might be enticed into putting up money for some of the non-victors too. But if that’s so, it is a clumsy and insensitive way to go about it, running the risk of telling people with paralysis or dementia (say) that the public doesn’t actually care that much about them. Given that the prize money is by some measures so small (Martin Rees suggested that big companies would be competing for the prestige, not the cash), is it really not possible to find £10m for each of them? If any of them were solved this way, the payback in terms of money saved from healthcare, economic losses and so forth would repay the investment many, many times over. (There’s another debate to be had about whether some of these problems – food, water, antibiotics, say – are ones that lend themselves to solution at a single stroke of technological genius, given how multi-faceted they are. But I’m willing to believe that the prize might at least elicit some useful contributions.)

The consequences of the “voting” format were made painfully apparent at the event itself. After a rather moving presentation in which a woman with a spinal-column injury explained what a difference an “artificial exoskeleton” had made to her life in enabling her to stand up – simply to address others eye to eye, let alone relieving the pain of constant sitting – another presenter then said “But mine is an even more important challenge!”, or words to that effect. He obviously didn’t intend for a moment to belittle his “opponent” or to sound at all callous – this is simply the dynamic inevitably created by the whole public-voting gambit.

So, despite the title that Prospect chose for my piece, I don’t think the Longitude 2014 Prize is a waste of time. It could have some valuable consequences, and I truly hope it does. But I think that it is, in some ways, worse than a "waste of time". Given how many good intentions and how much good thinking lie behind this project, it is all the more tragic that it has been lumbered with a format that is inappropriate, misconceived and, to my mind, offensive.

[Some version of this is likely to appear soon on the Prospect blog. I also discussed it this morning with Adam Rutherford for BBC radio. But that’s my say on the matter – I don’t want to be constantly sniping from the sidelines, and hope that the prize will now solicit some useful ideas.]

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