This year is the three hundredth anniversary of the passing of the Longitude Act, and David Cameron’s Tory government is glamming up the archaic principle to impose on 21st Century researchers. The Longitude Prize, first introduced back in 1714, is intended to inspire armchair scientists to become more active in the direction science moves in; instead of letting academics and business leaders govern the flow of science funding.
There are, of course, benefits to the act. Supporters note that it will accelerate the development of crucial drugs, intended to prevent anti-bacterial immunity. Whilst I’m sure this will be the case, I believe that funding for science is not simply an investment into a later technology. However, with the Nobel Prize for physics being awarded to a discovery with ‘significant commercial potential’, arguably for the third time in ten years, maybe the way that the general public perceive science funding is different to mine. In an age of continuing austerity, it is right that all government spending is scrutinised, however it should not be the case that all taxpayers’ money is judged using the same materialistic criteria.
Ultimately, I like to think that science has moved on since the last time a British government offered a reward-for-science incentive. Scientific research is now a team sport, requiring expensive materials, high-tech laboratories and knowledge well surpassing that of a hobby scientist. Whereas in 1700’s, well off statesman could dabble with a little science in their spare time, the explosion of knowledge that we have witnessed in the previous few decades has all but guaranteed that the era of part-time researchers is well and truly behind us.
Finally, I feel like the big PR campaign around the award is being used to distract the public about the severe lack of government funding into scientific research. No amount of television time or large, corporate judging panels can plug the funding hole left by successive Westminster administrations. Whilst the prize money, set at an ambitious £10m, is by no means insignificant, I cannot help but wonder if it will be ‘money well spent’. Universities are having budgets slashed, and are expected to produce the same level of outstanding work that has become synonymous with British scientists, without the help and support from the ruling parties. In conclusion, I feel like the prize is no more than an expensive gimmick, with little chance of engaging the public with the complicated web of science funding. I can only hope that the incentive will lead to some good breakthroughs in one of sciences biggest challenges.