Today’s longitude prize?

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Today’s longitude prize?

Today saw the announcement of the Queen Elizabeth Engineering Prize, offering £1 million for exceptional advances in engineering. It will be awarded biannually to individuals or teams of up to two people. Unsurprisingly, David Cameron, announcing the prize at the Science Museum today, compared it to the Longitude Prize – hinting at a glorious British past of science and engineering – as well as the Nobel Prize. Nick Clegg name-checked X Factor and the FA Cup.

Lord Rees, formerly President of the Royal Society and (still) Astronomer Royal, mentioned Longitude too today, in a Times article (paywall) headed ‘Isn’t it time to lure innovators with Longitude prizes?’. He opens,

We are repeatedly, and rightly, urged that the UK must channel more brainpower into innovation, jump-start new technologies, and enthuse young people towards careers in these fields. If we don’t get smarter, as a nation, we’ll surely get poorer…

before suggesting that ‘We can learn from a government initiative taken nearly 300 years ago – when Britain “ruled the waves”.’

In the article, Rees briefly reiterates the longitude story, via Sobel, and highlights the Harrison timekeepers as ‘the prime high-tech artifacts of the era’. He then goes on to describe various other ‘challenge prizes’:

The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) was set up to generate ideas for the Pentagon, but these often have commercial or social spin-offs. Darpa spends up to $10 million per year on challenges. For instance, there was a competition for driverless vehicles, challenged to navigate a 135-mile course across the Mojave Desert. In 2004, none of the 25 entrants succeeded; a year later, such was the improvement that five entrants completed the course.

Like the Longitude rewards, these are publicly financed, but Rees goes on to mention private initiatives, such as the California-based X Prize Foundation, ‘which oversees privately sponsored grand challenge prizes, with a typical value of $10 million’, ranging from for sub-orbital space flight to cheap but accurate genome sequencing, automated medical diagnosis to improved techniques for dealing with oil slicks. It’s strap-line is ‘Revolution through competition’. Rees notes:

Each prize unleashes investments from many competitors amounting to far more than the prize itself, and helps to focus competitive talent on an important challenge. Well-designed competitions are newsworthy enough to offer a much needed PR boost to the engineering profession. They raise the profile and esteem of innovators, and stimulate young people’s interest. For an individual or small company, the prize money is a significant incentive; if a big company wins, it’s the publicity that’s more important.

To be maximally worthwhile, a prize must address a theme that the public regard as important. It’s best if the contest can be followed as a “spectator sport” (robots, for instance). And this type of prize has other advantages over more conventional awards. The winner is decided objectively, as in athletics – and unlike Oscars and literary prizes. And they recognise and boost up-and-coming talent, unlike Nobel and similar prizes where the recognition may come only after decades.

Does this sound like the 18th-century experience of Longitude? More seriously, perhaps, are winners ever – then or now – decided objectively?

The piece ends with a call for such ‘challenge prizes’ in the UK. Rees does not mention the new engineering prize (unless the version of the article that I downloaded from Nexis is incomplete!), and so, obliquely, I presume that his point is that this prize, which doesn’t specify a particular challenge or set of challenges, is perhaps too open to get the kind of competitive spirit, financial investment and public interest he desires.

It is interesting, particularly in terms of the public interest we hope to generate in the theme of longitude with the various events and exhibitions at the NMM, to consider if the Board of Longitude’s rewards really do fit into the scheme that Rees has characterised. It was, of course, in origin a ‘challenge prize’ (and in 1818 it returned to a specific challenge with interest in the North West Passage) but it should be remembered that from the later 18th-century onward rewards were given for ideas, schemes and instrument that were general improvements in navigation and allied areas. Thus, while the X Prize – and, perhaps, Ken Livingstone’s £100,000 challenge to find a way of cooling the London Underground – are analogous to aspects of the Board’s remit, in some ways, the openness of this new QE Engineering Prize sits reasonably well with much of the Board’s history.

One Comment so far:

  1. [...] specific challenges. The idea of awarding prizes for advances in science and engineering has an illustrious history, and there is good evidence that prizes can act as strong incentives for innovation (Tim [...]

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