Tuesday, 16 September 2014
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Public to choose challenge for modern Longitude prize

A £10m technology prize to solve ‘one of the greatest issues of our time’ as been launched today in London.

The Longitude Prize 2014, inspired by the 18th century competition to find a way of determining a ship’s position at sea, will ask the British public to choose one of six challenges and award the fund to winning solution put forward within five years.

Finding a way to give paralysed people better freedom of movement, inventing a cheap desalination technology, and developing a rapid, easy-to-use and accurate infection test to improve use of antibiotics and help prevent drug-resistance are among the challenges.

’Three hundred years ago the Longitude Act stimulated invention and drew out hidden talent,’ said Martin Rees, chair of the Longitude Committee and Astronomer Royal, in a statement.

‘But today there are many areas where progress is still needed. That’s why we’ve decided that the theme of Longitude Prize 2014 should be selected in response to a public vote. We can all play a part, so I encourage people to tell us what their number one challenge is.’

The six challenges are:

  • Flight – design and build an aeroplane that is as close to zero carbon as possible and capable of flying from London to Edinburgh, at comparable speed to today’s aircraft;
  • Food – invent the next big food innovation, helping to ensure a future where everyone has enough nutritious, affordable and environmentally sustainable food;
  • Antibiotics – create a cost-effective, accurate, rapid, and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections that will allow health professionals worldwide to administer the right antibiotics at the right time;
  • Paralysis – invent a solution that gives paralysed people close to the same freedom of movement that most of us enjoy;
  • Water – alleviate the growing pressure on the planet’s fresh water by creating a cheap, environmentally sustainable desalination technology;
  • Dementia – develop intelligent, affordable integrated technologies that revolutionise care for people with dementia, enabling them to live independent lives.

The original Longitude prize was established by a 1714 act of Parliament and awarded in 1765 to clockmaker John Harrison for his invention of a chronometer (clock) accurate enough to record time at a fixed position while at sea, enabling ships’ crews to determine their own position.

The new challenges are of a much broader nature and reflect the need to address the world’s rising and ageing population without putting unsustainable pressure on the environment, said Rees.

Further details of the challenges and the prize will be broadcast on the 50th anniversary episode of Horizon on BBC Two on 22 May, after which the public will be able to vote online at www.bbc.co.uk/horizon.

The £10m prize is funded by the government through the Technology Strategy Board and the charity NESTA (formerly the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts), which is running the competition.


Readers' comments (10)

  • The top challenge facing our world must be to ensure that everyone on the planet has their fair share of food and water. Though without water we cannot survive more than 3 days, desalination would still leave an overwhelming number of the population without food so this is therefore the first priority. The solution is plain though not scientific: it will call for a revolution but not a scientific one. A small percentage of the population eat a very large percentage of the world's food: that is the area that needs to be addressed. May someone come up with the solution to that one!

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  • Food and water challenges apart, the new Longitude Prize challenges are not worthy of comparison with the 18th century one. In light of the acute threats to all humanity presented by future climate change our first priority should be to find a cheap sustainable and resilient replacement for fossil fuels ASAP. All else can then follow.

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  • Bloody ridiculous to specify a list that challenges are to be selected from.

    Dare you to have a free suggestion / free choice.

    You will be surprised at the effectiveness of the solutions you get.

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  • Unfortunately some of proposed idea are wrong for example the one regarding water - Solve it and it will just create more problems

    A better challenge would be to find an acceptable away to ensure the human population is such that it matches the ability of the planet to provide, with a good margin for safety and to give each of those an individuals a good quality of life.

    Nature will eventually do this for us if we do nothing. Not an easy one, as actions such as those used in 1 child per family policy in China had unforeseen consequences such as gender in balance in the population.

    Solve that one and you save the planet (for us humans at least )

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  • I like the concept of including a "free" challenge to stimulate a more open minded approach to solving potential problems. That said there's a lot of untapped creativity out there - the problem it needs finance and motivation first of all, if its to stand a chance of winning!

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  • What a ridiculous list - omitting the "number one challenge" altogether.

    All six pale into insignificance, compared to the urgent need to wean ourselves off fossil fuel consumption and produce ALL our energy needs from renewable, zero carbon sources.

    Who in their right mind gives a toss about those fortunate people who want to fly around the globe? (want to, not need to)

    How many people can't understand the fact that feeding tons of cereals to animals, so that a 'fortunate' few can consume an unhealthy amount of meat, is a very inefficient use of the Earth's resources?

    Desalination technologies already exist, to provide fresh water almost as a by-product of sustainable energy production. What's the problem?

    The problem is the distribution and the control of the capital needed to implement these essential changes. It's under the control of people who have no moral compass. The problem is political and societal - too much power concentrated in the wrong hands. What prize could be offered to sort that out?

    The gross administrative incompetence, delays and injustice of the original Longitude Prize can hardly be considered to set a worthy precedent.

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  • Seems that a lot of the commenters are disparaging access to clean water. This seems a shame, Clean and fresh water in abundance answers the basic requiement for life. With it not only are people less prone to dying of the immediate lack, or the waterbourne diseases associated with poor sanitation. Sufficient clean water opens up peoples lives to better education and greater leisure, which frees up their creativity. With sufficient clean fresh water irrigation is possible thus increasing the land area for food production. It also reduces reliance on drugs and would probably reduce dependence on antibiotics as well. You never know, the person who is destined to unlock cheap fusion power eliminating the need for fossil fuels might now be a child dying of exhaustion from trecking 10 miles a day to access water from a well polluted by human waste

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  • For David Smart

    Why do we need to weed our selves off fossil fuels? Because the world has not warmed for the last 17 years in spite of a steady rise in carbon dioxide levels, we can be sure that man-made carbon dioxide does not cause dangerous global warming. In fact, the current major risk is global cooling.

    With shale gas and, in the near future, methane ice from the ocean (clathrates), we have enormous resources of fossil fuels.

    Why renewable energy? Wind and solar power are hugely expensive and seriously ineffective. Nuclear energy using uranium and thorium can provide the energy needs of the world for the foreseeable future.

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  • All of our eggs are in one basket; planet Earth. To increase our risk of survival in the long term, mankind needs to colonise other planets. The next significant goal has to be a moon base and then to reach Mars. This surely is more in the spirit of the original prize, which was related to colonising other continents.

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  • I think the biggest problem in the world today is over-population. I agree that we urgently need to find ways of bringing clean water to all people, but so much strain is being put on our planet by over-breeding that something needs to be done to curb this before the balance is tipped irrevocably.

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