Longitude Prize Tackling the World’s Problems with Public Funds, Charity and Reality TV

Philanthropic priorities are often criticized for being too "top down." Government funding is simultaneously criticized for being too cautious. A 300-year-old British research prize is being resurrected with the addition of an unusual "talent show" element that could flip both dynamics upside-down.

The UK government announced this week the details of the revived Longitude Prize, which will award $17 million (£10 million) to a team that can best solve one of the most severe problems of our time. A public vote on six possible choices will determine the issue addressed, to be broadcast on a BBC television show, a la American Idol (or more appropriately, Britain’s Got Talent). Following the program Horizon, which will detail the six choices Thursday, the public will be able to vote on the show’s website to determine what topic innovators will be competing to solve. 

The prize is awarded by the charity Nesta, with UK government-funded Technology Strategy Board as a funding partner. There’s clearly a British focus, and the solution must benefit the UK economy in some way, but it’s a global competition in that anyone can enter. The prize is timed with the 300th anniversary of the original Longitude Prize, which offered funds to anyone who could find a way to accuately determine a ship’s position while at sea. The six potential challenges in the 2014 prize are:

  • Flight
  • Food
  • Antibiotics
  • Paralysis
  • Water
  • Dementia

The prize has received praise as an exciting way to engage the public and to focus more innovators on the most difficult problems of our time. It’s also been criticized for using something like a reality TV-style online poll to divert serious funds to a serious problems, or as a distraction from proper funding or reform. There’s also something kind of mean about making people choose if they want to devote funds to food OR water. 

From a philanthropic standpoint, it’s a fascinating combination of government funding, charity, crowdsourcing, and a straight-up publicity stunt that we rarely, if ever, see. Something like Kavli or even Breakthrough, as flashy as they try to be, are still basically academic prizes to research insiders, and far from primetime TV fodder. And compared to something like the XPrize, the Longitude Prize not only brings a government into the business of high-profile research competition, it also lets the public have a say in what gets funded (do we really want to go back to the moon?).

These represent some pretty radical changes in both government funding and high-stakes prizes. It will be interesting to see if it generates any actual breakthroughs, or if it rubs off to other countries.