This week Nesta and the government-funded Technology Strategy Board are offering £10 million for a solution to the biggest scientific problem of our time.
The competition idea is based on the 1714 Longitude Prize, which was won by John Harrison. His clocks enabled sailors to pinpoint their position at sea for the first time.
In an updated version, the public will be asked to choose a new challenge. The categories, from which the problem will be chosen, were announced on Monday 17th May 2014. These themes have been selected by a Longitude Committee and are:
FLIGHT – How can we fly without damaging the environment?
FOOD- How can we ensure everyone has nutritious sustainable food?
ANTIBIOTICS – How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics
PARALYSIS – How can we restore movement to those with paralysis?
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?
Comparing the modern prize to its predecessor, Prof Sir Martin Rees, chair of the Longitude Committee and English Astronomer Royal, observed that there is no manifest number one problem as there was in the 18th Century. Rather there are many broad societal problems demanding fresh thinking.
Each category will be examined in a BBC Horizon programme to be broadcast on BBC 2 at 21.00 tomorrow. After that a public vote will be opened, with the chosen theme to be announced on 25 June.
My own favourite and the one I hope they choose, at the moment, is the search to provide freedom of movement to people with paralysis. This case will be presented on Thursday by A&E doctor Saleyha Ahsan, who will demonstrate the potential for her challenge with the help of Sophie Morgan, who has a spinal cord injury. Using a robotic exoskeleton called Rex, Ms Morgan is able to stand up on stage.
Ms Morgan, who has been using Rex for one month, will tell the audience: “Having been sat down all the time, it is literally and metaphorically a perspective shifter… I’ve been psychologically affected by talking to people at eye level and there are health benefits. Already, I’m sleeping better, feeling better, my body is getting better and the pain is gone.”
Whichever category is chosen the prize will go some way to harness a spirit of ingenuity, creativity and positivity. Great innovators like Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage and Alan Turing led the field in technology only to be replaced with other pioneers in other countries who were supported, encouraged and more importantly funded by visionary Governments and Businesses. This could be a chance to channel more brain power into innovation, jump-start new technologies and enthuse young people.
It will be exciting to find some modern-day John Harrison somewhere out there who will be inspired to change our world fundamentally and who may not even know they are a scientist. I look forward to the programme tomorrow and to finding out more about each category, and I may have to change my mind, however I wish everyone good luck.