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 find a solution to some of the major societal challenges of the day… As the project moves from the scoping to a public debate, voting, and challenge setting phases, a range of tools will be used to ensure the public are engaged and excited by the project.” Have I landed in a scene from W1A, the glorious spoof on the management-speak and corporate-thinking infecting the BBC? Or are we really to understand that, after due scoping and framing, the public are going to vote on the question of what businesses, universities and others (which others?) should be spending their money on, with much the same mindset as they watch, you know, dogs jumping over poles? OK, let’s get a little balance. Any initiative that has as its chairman Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and ex-president of the Royal Society, who can smell a rotten egg from 50 paces, can’t be all bad. He will head an “illustrious committee”, managed by the innovation charity Nesta. And it’s clear that paternalistic “we know what’s best for you” government doesn’t have a great record for deciding what is important in science innovation either: the UK has a pretty poor track record of capitalizing on the creativity of its scientists. But if our alternatives are either to delegate decisions to faceless bureaucrats behind closed doors in Whitehall, or to throw the vote open by aping TV talent shows, we are not doing much for the image of democracy in action. Can we just remember that the original Longitude Prize of 1714, on which this current project is allegedly modelled, was not itself the result of a group vote for the most pressing of technological issues of its time? The difficulty of determining navigation at sea was already widely recognized as a serious problem. The “open-source” nature of the prize was all about the solution, not about identifying the problem in the first place. And cracking that problem was primarily about securing naval supremacy and expanding trade and colonial power. If you had asked the population, they might have been more concerned about basic sanitation or their lack of voting rights on anything at all. Besides, no one won the Longitude Prize. (In fact, as science historian Rebekah Higgitt has argued, it’s not clear that there was ever really a “prize” as such at all.) Despite Cameron’s claim that it was awarded to the clockmaker John Harrison, he was never officially given that honour. After tireless campaigning to have his achievement recognized, he finally managed to wring the equivalent money out of a reluctant Parliament, but the Board of Longitude stressed that this was a bountiful gesture to acknowledge Harrison’s efforts, not the “prize” itself. Prospective contenders for the reincarnated award might not find this the most reassuring history. What I object to most of all, however, is not the ridiculous language in which this prize has been dressed, not the poor history within which it has been framed, not the paltry million pounds or so that is at stake, not even the question of who chooses the objective. It is the whole notion of a competition to find the biggest challenge our technologies face. There is no single grand challenge into which we must pour millions. It’s a whole lot worse than that. The climate is changing, and to solve that alone we will need a whole raft of technological, economic and social measures. Our antibiotics are becoming useless. We lack cures for some of the most widespread and debilitating diseases on the planet. Billions of people lack access to safe drinking water. This is not rocket science—we know perfectly well what the problems are, and how serious they are. We don’t need to dress them up for a beauty pageant so that we can crown a winner. We should just get on with the job.