Why ask the public to vote reality TV-style on what the biggest challenge we face in science is when we already know the answer?by Philip Ball / May 10, 2014 / Leave a comment
Scientists shouldn’t be asked to perform for votes like Susan Boyle
Ah, the wisdom of crowds. Or is that the madness? I’m not sure any more. Do we trust the crowd to find the perfect answer to a challenge? Or do we fear that it will tip into irrational behaviour and lose touch with reality?
And do we really care? Mad or wise, the crowd is where it’s at. You know, democracy, the voice of the people. So never mind I’m a Celebrity and Strictly Come Dancing—why not let the masses decide science policy?
“I’m thinking of something—Britain’s Got Talent, you know, you switch on the TV and you watch the dog jumping over the pole, or whatever it is”, said David Cameron last June. “Let’s actually get the nation engaged on what the biggest problems are in science that we need to crack, with a multi-million pound prize to help us do that.” He was showing that he had his finger on the pulse—or at least, that he had some vague notion that these days there’s this interactive voting thing that’s popular with the masses.
Oh, you may mock. But there’s some serious thought behind Cameron’s announcement of the so-called Longitude 2014 Prize. “It is vital” (according to the announcement of the prize on the Sciencewise website) “that in the 21st Century the challenges set are not simply those framed by academics or business leaders, but rather that the Committee responsible for overseeing the Prize understands the issues, priorities and views of the full range of stakeholders including the general public. This will be consistent with the Government’s commitment to open and transparent policy making.” You don’t get more open than delegating such policy-making to everyone.
Back to the Sciencewise announcement. “The project has been divided into phases and the current dialogue project is for the first phase, scoping and framing. Framing here refers to setting out how the project to identify challenges will run and what the areas for the challenges will be. By involving the public in this early scoping phase we can be confident that the issues and challenges set by Longitude 14 [ah, that has a nice ring to it] will be consistent with issues that are of public concern… The Longitude 14 prize will serve to inform policy that aims to encourage businesses, universities and others to…