Monday, 30 June 2014

The Politics of the Longitude Prize

As a global society, we face a number of issues that need to be addressed urgently. The Longitude Committee chose six of these, and formed six scientific challenges that, if answered, would help solve these issues. Just last week, the public decided that the most worthy challenge was the one that addresses the rise in bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

The challenge involves developing a cost-effective, reliable and swift means for testing for bacterial infections, which health professionals can use to prescribe the right antibiotics at the right time. This would reduce the frequency with which antibiotics are unnecessarily prescribed, and will thus help slow the growth of bacterial resistance. The Longitude Committee have promised to award a prize of £10 million to the candidate who best answers the challenge.

What I like about the Longitude Prize is that it emphasises the role that science has to play in addressing our greatest global challenges. It thus publically re-affirms the important status of science in society, something that can be often undermined. It also inspires people to use science to address these global challenges, people from both our current workforce and from the next generation’s. As such, I have no doubt that the Prize will drive some important positive results.

However, in emphasising the role that science has to play in addressing these challenges, critics are concerned that it does too little to highlight the pivotal role of politics. Indeed, even if a practical means of testing for bacterial infections were found, political action would be absolutely necessary to ensure that the equipment was actually distributed and used. As Jonathan Mendel puts it, writing on the Guardian, the Longitude Prize leaves us “seduced by hopes that science will solve our social and political problems” although, single-handedly, it most certainly can’t. The worry is that the Longitude Prize thereby fosters political inaction.

In my view, the Longitude Prize may well “seduce our hopes that science will solve our social and political problems”. However, I think it is very important to realise that this is not due to any fault in the Prize itself. Rather, it is a lack of sufficient political action and awareness that makes us vulnerable to becoming “seduced”.

It is extremely important to promote scientific action, and the Longitude Prize does this well. What we need alongside this is political action, because without them in tandem, we haven’t a hope of solving our greatest global challenges.

Science Says | A Little Matter of Light

My first blog post for Science Says explores how scientists will soon be turning pure light into matter. Take a look, here!

Image: Pretty Lights under creative commons license