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Prizes with purpose

News Section Icon Published 28/05/2014


The prize is £10 million. Anyone can enter. All you have to do is come up with a solution to one of the six greatest challenges facing humanity – from healthcare to the environment – and you could become a modern-day hero of the highest order. We’re talking about the Longitude Prize 2014, and what it means for the world.

As competition prizes go, the Longitude Prize 2014 is probably one of the biggest. Launched by Nesta – a charity promoting innovation throughout the UK – in collaboration with the government-funded Technology Strategy Board, the initiative is designed to attract the nation’s as-yet untapped talent to combat one of six global threats: antibiotic resistance, human paralysis, food insecurity, dementia, water scarcity and polluting air travel.


The public is being asked to choose the category they would like to become the focus of the competition. Once that is decided on 25 June, entrants from all walks of life will be encouraged to be clever, creative and courageous in their search for a breakthrough solution to one of the 21st century’s greatest scientific challenges.

Tracing untapped talent

The challenge is based on the original Longitude Prize of 1714, which awarded £20,000 (the equivalent of at least several million pounds today) to anyone who could solve the most challenging conundrum of the day – namely, how to work out a ship’s longitude at sea. The winnings went to John Harrison, a clockmaker from Yorkshire, who designed a clock that worked effectively as a navigational device. His ingenuity revolutionised seafaring, saved lives and catalysed global trade.

As the BBC's director-general, Tony Hall, said: ‘What's really exciting about the Longitude Prize 300 years on, in 2014, is that there might be another modern-day John Harrison somewhere out there – someone who will be inspired to change our world fundamentally, and they may not even know that they're a scientist.’

The psychology of prizes

Whether it’s the lure of fame and fortune, the powerful pull of problem-solving or a deep-rooted desire to change the world for the better, prizes for fostering innovation are a tried-and-tested formula.

From the 18th-century Longitude Prize to today’s well-known XPRIZE – which seeks fresh technological thinking to overcome grand humanitarian challenges – or PETA’s specialised in-vitro chicken prize, there can be no doubt that incentivised competition occupies a firm position in our cultural and scientific heritage, and often with great results.

Longitude and livestock

So how is the prize relevant to Compassion? Well, the fight for food security is one of the central strands of our campaign. According to the World Food Programme, 842 million people in the world do not have enough to eat. And with a projected population of 9 billion people in 2050, progress in this area has become absolutely imperative, so that everyone on the planet has access to nutritious, affordable food.

An obvious route to freeing up food is to end factory farming, and there are a wealth of inventions and ideas that can feed into, and support, that goal. We’re already seeing the subjects of GM crops, eating insects and growing burgers in labs stimulating discussion and debate in society. So, if the food category wins the vote in the Longitude Prize, it’ll be fascinating to see what the next big food innovation might be.

But the connections between our campaign and the prize don’t stop there. Antibiotic resistance is another issue that’s close to our hearts, not least because the overuse of these drugs in factory farms is encouraging the spread of the very bugs that resist the antibiotics.

And then there’s the issue of water scarcity. Factory farming is a thirsty business, using vast quantities of clean water to grow the crops that feed our livestock. It is also incredibly polluting, compromising the quality of potential drinking water.

Get voting

As a way to stimulate research, inspire young minds and foster innovation across society, this exciting initiative has the potential to be extremely powerful. Radical or not, the ideas that come out of it are likely to gain momentum and grow offshoots, engaging people in an ongoing dialogue between science and the progress of humanity.

It goes without saying that food security has our vote as the issue we’d most like to see tackled in the Longitude Prize. Now it’s time for you to get voting (you either need a BBC ID or you can send a text).

And for those of you out there who believe you might have a revolutionary idea inside you, now might just be the time to bring it to life.


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