Three hundred years ago, one of the greatest scientific challenges of the day involved figuring out how to accurately navigate ships at sea. The British government asked scientists to solve this by establishing the Longitude Prize and asking scientists to develop a chronometer that would help sailors get to their desired destinations.

Today's scientific challenges are much more involved, and this week the Longitude Prize has been reborn. It will offer £10 million (about $16.8 million) to solve the "greatest scientific problems facing the world today." The prize is funded by the British government and is run by Nesta, a British charity that focuses on innovation in the United Kingdom.

The prize money is substantial, but committee member Roger Highfield explained that there are more high-brow reasons to enter. "It is not the money," he wrote in The Telegraph, "though £10 million is certainly newsworthy. Nor is it the glory of being the first, or best, or most innovative. It will be the satisfaction of changing the world for the better, not just for the benefit of this generation but for the next."

What are those challenges the prize seeks to solve? That's where you come in (as long as you live in the U.K., of course). The Longitude Prize committee is asking the public to vote on which one of the following six challenges — many of which have an environmental component — will be the main focus of the competition:

  • Flight — How can we fly without damaging the environment?
  • Food — How can we ensure everyone has nutritious, sustainable food?
  • Antibiotics — How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?
  • Paralysis — How can we restore movement to those with paralysis?
  • Water — How can we ensure everyone has access to safe and clean water?
  • Dementia — How can we help people with dementia live independently for longer?
Although the prize has earned some skepticism — one critic equated it to the "Hunger Games" — others say it will stimulate ideas and a wider discussion about the problems facing the planet. "A well-designed prize should unleash investment from many quarters, amounting to much more than the prize itself, by enhancing the competitive focus on a challenge important for human welfare," British cosmologist Martin Rees wrote in Nature. "The contest should also be newsworthy enough to raise the profile and reputation of innovators and to stimulate young people's interest and enthusiasm — and that could in itself have substantial social value."

Once the category is determined, the committee will finalize the terms of the challenge. After that, anyone will be able to enter. The committee anticipates that it might take some time to come up with the winning idea; the winner won't be announced until at least the year 2020.

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