300 years is a long time in hi-tech research

All Nippon Airways Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner JA801A OKJThree hundred years ago, an act of parliament created a prize for the solving a then highly pressing technological problem: How a ship at see could work out where on Earth it actually was, in particular what its longitude was. If you are like me and always get longitude and latitude mixed up, longitude is position east-west, while latitude is north-south. As I learnt last week in a IoP South Central general talk by Dr Rebekah Higgitt, the biggest (of several) contributions to solving this was by John Harrison, who made the first clocks that were very accurate at sea.

The prize was about £2.5 million in today’s money. If you are one guy in the 18th century making then world-leading clockwork, I guess the equivalent of £2.5 million is a lot of money.

But technological innovation has moved on over the last three hundred years. Moved on a lot*. The government has just launched a new Longitude Prize for 2014. I am not convinced they have kept up with progress. In 2014, technological innovation is often a very capital intensive endeavour done not by lone scientists but by large teams of scientists and engineers.

For example, one of the 6 challenges of the new Longitude Prize is basically to build an eco-friendly plane from London to Edinburgh. The prize for this is £10 million. The motivation is the increasing carbon footprint our ever increasing tendency to jet around is producing.

£10 million may make a difference to those hoping to make say a super-light solar powered one-person plane. But our carbon footprint comes from commercial airliners. Boeing claim that their latest airliner, the 787, is the most fuel-efficient yet. It cost about £20 billion to develop.

If we want an even more fuel-efficient airliner, £1 million is loose change. BA’s 2013 fuel bill has been estimated at close to £5 billion. Now that’s an incentive to develop more fuel efficient aircraft.

The Longitude Prize’s 6 challenges are genuinely important things, but because they are important if loose change like £10 million could even partially solve them, they would have been solved. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed $2 billion to the fight against malaria. If we want to attack problems of this importance, we too will have to spend billions not millions.

* The theme of this post is that things have moved on a lot over the last 300 years. Rebekah Higgitt made the point that John Harrison had to lobby like crazy to actually get the money he felt was his due. For the sake of anyone going after these worthy challenges I hope things will prove to have moved on that regard too. More comparison of 1714 and 2014 here.

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