An inspirational and historic competition has been brought back this week. Announced with great excitement on Monday, May 19, the Longitude Prize offers the public a chance to decide which of the six major problems faced by the world today should be the focus of a £10 million competition to find a solution.
Inspiration comes from the United Kingdom’s Longitude Act of 1714, which offered £20,000 (about £2.5 million today) to the first person who could calculate a ship’s position in open water within 30 miles, according to The Week. Solving this problem opened up new trade routes and improved overseas transactions.
In 2014, however, the prize starts with an invitation to choose between six potential problems. There are six major issues facing humanity in the 21st century, including flight, food, paralysis, water, dementia, and antibiotics. The public of the UK will decide which of these categories researchers and innovators will investigate.
Flight focuses on how we can fly without damaging the environment. The UK is aiming to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, but air travel is hindering their success. If flight wins, the challenge will be to design a zero or close-to-zero carbon airplane that is capable of flying at comparable speeds to today’s aircraft.
The second problem focuses on how we can ensure everyone has a sustainable supply of nutritious food. As the world’s population heads toward an estimated 9.6 billion in 2050, we must learn how to feed more people with better food at a lower cost. If this category wins the vote, the challenge will be to create the next big innovation that ensures nutritious, affordable, and sustainable food for all.
“I would vote for food. Right now, many diseases and problems have arisen due to lack of nutritious food,” said Christine Chen, a second-year biology major. “For example, in Africa, many people are lacking vitamin A, and it’s causing a big health problem. Nutritious food is something that can make a big impact for a person’s health and well-being.”
Paralysis focuses on how we can restore movement in humans. Doctors have been getting better at saving the lives of people with serious conditions, such as stroke victims, but this has led to a rise in the number of paralyzed people. If this issue is chosen, the challenge will be to invent a solution that can give these people freedom from their illness.
Water targets the issue of safe and clean water for everyone. Much of the world’s water is too salty for agriculture or drinking, and one in every 10 people do not have access to safe drinking water. As demand grows and water reserves shrink, many are trying to develop a way to increase water supply while helping the environment. If water wins, the challenge will be to create technology that provides sustainable and cheap water to those in need.
“I would vote for water,” said Noah Dennis, a second-year physics major. “It’s always one of those topics we talk about when discussing third world countries, but it is a pressing issue everywhere around the world. Clean water is not a sustainable resource for every part of the world, but it should be.”
Dementia focuses on helping people diagnosed with dementia to live independently for longer. As the world’s population lives longer, more people are developing dementia and becoming unable to care for themselves. If this category is chosen, the challenge will be to develop affordable technologies to improve care for people suffering for dementia.
The final problem is antibiotics, and it focuses on preventing resistances to antibiotics. The evolution of viruses is threatening to make these medications ineffective, and we are currently unable to distinguish bacterial infections or types of bacteria that are causing the overuse of antibiotics. If this problem wins the vote, the challenge is to create an easy test for bacterial infections to pinpoint which treatments are needed for the patient.
The prize money is substantial, but committee member Roger Highfield explained that there are more important reasons to enter. “It is not the money,” he wrote in the Telegraph, “though £10 million is certainly newsworthy. Nor is it the glory of being the first, or best, or most innovative. It will be the satisfaction of changing the world for the better, not just for the benefit of this generation but for the next.”
Once the category is determined, the committee will finalize the terms of the challenge. Any competitors are allowed to enter after that. The committee predicts that it may take some time to come up with the winning idea; they do not expect to announce the winner until at least 2020.