back to article Brits to vote: Which pressing scientific challenge should get £10m thrown at it?

Regular Brits are going to get to decide which of humanity’s challenges will get a £10m shot at being solved, in a new prize from the UK government and charity NESTA. The Longitude Prize wants to hand over the millions to the best idea for sorting out one of six problems facing the human race - eco-friendly flight, sustainable …

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  1. Jacksonville

    They missed a trick...

    How about formulating proposals for the reversing the trend of the ever-increasing global population?

    1. NogginTheNog

      Re: They missed a trick...

      The North Koreans and the US military already have some good research projects in that area.

    2. Wade Burchette

      Re: They missed a trick...

      Global population can be controlled by increasing the standard of living for poorer countries. Already many European countries have a stable population. You increase the standard of living in poorer countries by making electricity cheap and plentiful. That means lots of power plants. Unfortunately because of the catastrophic anthropogenic global warming/climate change/climate disruption/climate weirding theory, poorer countries have a huge barrier into providing cheap and plentiful electricity because the only source of cheap electricity today is nuclear, coal, natural gas, and hydro. Environmentalists have some problem with all 4 of those.

      1. Charles Manning

        "increasing the standard of living"

        Look, there really is no problem with global population per se.

        Why does it matter if there are 1bn people or 100bn people? The population is not the direct problem.

        The problem is only caused indirectly: those billions of people consume resources: food, land, water,...

        This is where "increasing the standard of living" idea becomes a fallacy.

        A Westerner consumes at least 10x what an impoverished Asian/African does, so converting all the impoverished people into Western-level consumers means we have to find 10x the resources for these people.

        Even if this reduces the actual population by a factor of two or three, you're still taking a backward step in terms of actual resources required.

        Now, to be clear, I am not at all opposed to lifting the standard of living of impoverished people - indeed I support efforts to do so. I merely point out that this is not a solution to the "population issue"..

        It is worth noting that the standard of living has increased dramatically over the last few decades. Disease is reduced (except for the murderous greenies banning DDT and causing malaria to increase again). Famine is rare; indeed obesity is now more of a problem than malnutrition.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: "increasing the standard of living"

          "Now, to be clear, I am not at all opposed to lifting the standard of living of impoverished people - indeed I support efforts to do so. I merely point out that this is not a solution to the "population issue".."

          Part of the reason for the rising population levels, especially in less "advanced" societies, is the increase in medical care and raising of living standards while still having the local attitudes of past generations when infant mortality was even higher and children are your pension/insurance.

          In the short term, raising living standards increases population level. I the long term, population levels stabilise. The downside is that they stabilise at the higher levels brought on by the initial raising of living standards and in most countries rarely, if ever, go down.

          On the other hand, the world is more than capable of feeding the population well. It's the logistics we are shite at,

    3. Jacksonville

      Re: They missed a trick...

      I can't remember where I read it, but I saw an attractive proposal on this matter once.

      The principle being allow the market to control population... It was effectively a voucher system based on the rights to have children...

      Each human being gets the right to reproduce 2/3 of a child. A couple coming together therefore have the right to produce 1.5 children. If they have one, they each have the rights to have 0.25 children left. If they don't want another child they can sell their rights in the market to those that wish to have more. If they do want another child with the same or another partner they would have to go to the market and purchase the additional rights or face a sanction of a fine equivalent to the market value of the right.

      Obviously it is riddled with hugely complex obstacles and assumptions... how would religion react, how do you punish those who do not adhere and do not pay the sanction...etc

      The proposer suggested that by doing so you immediately reduce the single biggest pressure on overpopulation in the developing world by commoditising not having so many children...

      1. Captain Hogwash Silver badge

        Re: They missed a trick...

        I'll start the ball rolling. What am I bid for my 2/3?

        1. Naughtyhorse
          Alert

          Re: They missed a trick...

          please don't tell me you'll send the 'winnings' to the lucky bidder in a jiffy bag

          1. Captain Hogwash Silver badge
            Happy

            Re: They missed a trick... @Naughtyhorse

            I enjoyed your post so much that I'm prepared let you enjoy the bounty conferred by mine and call off the auction.

        2. Don Jefe

          Re: They missed a trick...

          Human population isn't a problem people need to deal with. It's a self resolving issue and the best solution will be automatically created and deployed as the pop off valve every system has. There are no exceptions. Naturally occurring systems, artificial systems and both kinds of those systems with control/manipulation mechanisms (civilization in this case) all have a pop off valve and it always works without the need for any external input.

          So be happy and don't worry about that big ole mess. Any solution developed by Humans to deal with the issue is guaranteed to be inferior, and more destructive, than the system generated solution. A Human solution is also stuffed with moral potholes that historically haven't led to anything good.

          Let the system handle this one. No good ever comes from dicking around with safety mechanisms.

          1. Nuke

            @Don Jefe - Re: They missed a trick...

            Wrote :- "Human population isn't a problem people need to deal with. It's a self resolving issue and the best solution will be automatically created and deployed as the pop off valve every system has. "

            Yes, the "self resolution" could be by a number of mechanisms, such as :-

            1) So many people for the food that can be produced that many starve to death, or they simply start killing each other for it.

            2) So many people for the energy available that they start killing each other for it.

            3) So many people living so close together that an as yet unevolved fatal virus goes through them like wildfire.

            4) So many people crammed together that a significant percentage reduce the numbers by going postal with the stress of overcrowding.

            5) I could go on and on with this.

            I remember from school biology some classic cases of certain animal species whose numbers fluctuated wildly in series of booms followed by natural catastrophies caused by factors similar to the above, and there have been increasingly ominous signs of the same even among humans for the last 100 years or so. I would have hoped that, being supposedly higher animals, that we could control things without waiting for such catastrophies. From an engineering background, good plant operators don't wait for the safety valve to lift - they keep the pressure below that level.

            Even without catastrophies, as you may argue, there is still the matter of quality of life. I'd rather have fewer descendants living happily than loads of them living in the kind of hell depicted in Soylent Green.

            1. Don Jefe

              Re: @Don Jefe - They missed a trick...

              You completely miss the point, Nuke. The system will respond and the results for Humans will be far, far worse than in your examples. We can use science, engineering and technology and delay the safety mechanisms being activated, but we can't stay ahead of it indefinitely.

              I am not advocating for the death of billions of people, I'm saying that if we don't do anything to stop people from breeding then shitloads of them will eventually die, probably horribly, as system safeties kick in. That will suck, especially if you're one if the shitload that die, but the most horrid system safety scenario you can imagine isn't nearly as horrible as any Human designed methods of managing the Human population.

              There are zero equitable, moral or enforceable methods of determining who should breed and who shouldn't. Every possible system is so chock full of holes and caveats that doing nothing becomes a far less atrocious thing and far preferable. Doing nothing is a choice just as much as doing everything possible. Knowing when not to do something is every bit as important as knowing when to do something. In this case doing something is going to create a huge fucking disaster.

              Who is going to enforce the rules? You realize none of those rules will apply to me or anyone in my neighborhood. Nor will those rules apply to those I choose to make exempt from the rules. Anything that gets proposed is going to create classes of people even further apart than wealth creates now. I'll be able to carry in as I please. Will you? Are you willing to die trying to stop me from living by a second set of rules? Because that's what will happen. People will be, rightfully, angry that they can't have kids, but I can do as I please. They'll choose to take action and they will die. They'll be dead before they even see my office or my home and that story will be repeated and repeated.

              Because any plan to control population is granting certain people the right to grant life I've got an inexhaustible supply of troops who will fight, and die, simply because I granted them permission to breed, and there's fuck all anybody can do about it. Why would that situation be preferable to anyone? I think it's awful and wholly unfair, but that's not going to stop me from protecting myself, family and those I deem valuable from being overwhelmed by peasants who aren't allowed to breed. It's far better to not even go down that road. It won't end well for most people.

              Far better to do our best to engineer the environment using improved science and technology to delay the inevitable as long as possible. Maybe someone not too far in the future will figure out how we can colonize other worlds or who knows what. But let's see what that 'who knows' turns out to be. But if we try to control the population, instead of provide for, it most people will not like the outcome.

        3. davemcwish

          Re: They missed a trick...

          "I'll start the ball rolling. What am I bid for my 2/3?"

          A second-hand iPhone

      2. Gotno iShit Wantno iShit

        Re: They missed a trick...

        Maths fail.

        As to how the religions would react, same way as ever - badly.

        1. Jacksonville

          Re: They missed a trick...

          "maths fail"

          You're quite right, should be 0.75

          1. Tom 13

            Re: They missed a trick...

            There is a bigger maths fail, but it's hidden in the assumptions.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: They missed a trick...

          > Maths fail.

          > As to how the religions would react

          1/. Inability to do simple mental arithmetic revokes your breeding rights.

          2/. Overpopulation problem solved.

          3/. Prophet!!!

          1. Vic

            Re: They missed a trick...

            > 3/. Prophet!!!

            And that last is exactly the problem with most forms of social engineering; they end up creating some sort of pseudo-religion...

            Vic.

      3. Fibbles
        Trollface

        Re: They missed a trick...

        "Each human being gets the right to reproduce 2/3 of a child. A couple coming together therefore have the right to produce 1.5 1.333 children. If they have one, they each have the rights to have 0.25 0.166 children left."

        Must try harder. See me after class.

      4. Charles Manning

        Selling baby rights

        These theoretical ideas don't gain traction in the real world because they are unworkable.

        Consider a person that has no assets:

        1. Sells right for $10k, blows it all.

        2. Then has 10 kids.

        3. Owes "fines" of $100k.

        What are you going to do to get that 100k from them? Threats don't work on people who have little or nothing.

        On top of this, you will have leaders saying "screw the Westerners and their ideas" and telling people to have all the babies they want because that is the African way. That's how people like Jacob Zuma in South Africa get into power.

        1. Nuke
          Holmes

          @Charles Manning - Re: Selling baby rights

          Wrote :- "Consider a person that has no assets: ...... Then has 10 kids. .... Owes "fines" of $100k. What are you going to do to get that 100k from them? "

          Sterilise them if they go over their allowance. Only 10k.

      5. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
        Windows

        Re: They missed a trick...

        "The principle being allow the market to control population... It was effectively a voucher system based on the rights to have children..."

        I believe a Mr Jonathan Swift also had A Modest Proposal many years ago.

    4. Robin Bradshaw

      Re: They missed a trick...

      @ Jacksonville

      http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_on_global_population_growth

      There you go, as mentioned by Wade Burchette improving the standard of living for emerging economy's will sort out population growth, Id highly recommend looking at other talks by Hans Rosling too.

      Personally Id like to see more research into either Thorium cycle or maybe Fast neutron reactors as a source of clean electric for the future.

  2. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

    Safe water's easy

    The technology for cheaply delivering safe water and sanitation exists. So my proposal for solving the problem is "Spend some money on it, instead of on guns, bombs, bribes and presidential palaces". Who do I apply to for my £10 million?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Safe water's easy

      and probably the only one that will see any decent outcomes.

      £10m is a drop in the ocean compared to the research budgets of aerospace and pharma companies, who are probably already interested in those topics.

    2. Don Jefe

      Re: Safe water's easy

      The technology isn't the problem. It's deploying the technology that makes a mess of it all.

      Clean water technology turns every place it is deployed into a strategic asset for persons with dreams of dominion. The UN as well as a variety of NGO's and regular greedy companies have looked at the issue for over 30 years and the conclusions are aways the same: In order to deploy clean water technology without turning the area into a war zone you need to turn the region into a war zone so that the technology is so widespread it losses its value as a tool of subjugation.

      It's a big fucking mess and every scenario involves lots and lots of soldiers. The Israelis are kind of the gold standard of using water as a political tool. Don't get me wrong, they're really big, hyper aggressive assholes about it, but they've killed a lot less people to protect clean water producing installations than we saw killed by warlords and just outright crazies in Sub-Saharan pilot deployments. When the difference between the best and worst examples of a given thing is just a body count it's generally a long, long way from being a 'good thing'.

      I don't know what to do about it and I'm pretty good at solving huge problems without using soldiers. Other commercial entities have the same interests, and more ppresources as me, but they've also got the same basic problem; private armies usually don't work out like you hope and nobody with lots of money wants to lose it to a weaponized lunatic. Most NGO's pretty much suck at anything that isn't fundraising and everybody knows how politicians solve problems. It's either through inaction, taxes, soldiers or some highly unstable combination of all those things. Again, rarely are the outcomes what sane people would consider desirable.

      So if somebody can figure out how to get everybody to get along they'll win the clean water prize by default.

      1. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge
        Coat

        Re: Safe water's easy

        "So if somebody can figure out how to get everybody to get along they'll win the clean water prize by default."

        Get rid of the politicians?

        1. Tom 13

          Re: Get rid of the politicians?

          There's only one thing on the planet worse than a politician. That's why we used politicians to replace warlords.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Safe water's easy

      All that's needed is a campaign to stop teenagers peeing in reservoirs.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I've got 5 out of the 6 sorted...can I get my money now?

    eco-friendly flight - Air Balloon.

    sustainable food - eat insects

    safe and clean water - Britta water filter

    a cure for paralysis - Robocop

    independent living for those with dementia - post it notes

    1. stucs201

      anti-biotic resistance - Patients: finish the damn course, don't leave the last few pills because you feel better. Doctors: don't cut the length of course prescribed to save funds.

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
        Unhappy

        @stucs201

        "anti-biotic resistance - Patients: finish the damn course, don't leave the last few pills because you feel better. Doctors: don't cut the length of course prescribed to save funds."

        You missed the big one.

        Stop feeding them to farm animals as "growth promoters" so every bacteria on the planet can get a set of plasmids for all know anti biotics.

        Then maybe the drug companies could actually restart developing (and looking) for some new ones.

    2. Oh Homer Silver badge
      Holmes

      6 out of 6

      Paralysis - how can we restore movement to those with paralysis;

      Electroencephalogram-controlled pneumatic prosthetics (already invented).

      Antibiotics - how can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics;

      Stop using them.

      Food - how can we ensure everyone has nutritious, sustainable food;

      Stop being greedy, and freely redistribute the 17% of food we currently overproduce.

      Dementia - how can we help people with dementia to live independently for longer;

      Stop trying to force the elderly and infirm to live in isolation, and take responsibility for caring for them, instead of discarding them like trash.

      Flight - how can we fly without damaging the environment;

      Solar-powered aircraft (already invented).

      Water - how can we ensure everyone has access to safe and clean water.

      Solar stills, wells and desalination plants (already invented).

      I claim my £10 million prize.

      Please donate it to Oxfam.

  4. Sleepy Bob

    Science education...

    .. on why homeopathy (and similar) don't work.

    1. TRT Silver badge

      Re: Science education...

      *sigh*

      Can we get this straight, please?

      Homeopathy (and similar) does work. It just doesn't work any better than placeboes etc. and medicine generally works better.

      1. ukgnome Silver badge

        Re: Science education...

        *double sigh*

        Can we get this straight, please?

        Homeopathy lacks biological plausibility and the axioms of homeopathy have been refuted for some time.

        1. Nick Ryan Silver badge

          Re: Science education...

          This website tickled me a while ago when I came across it: http://www.howdoeshomeopathywork.com/

          1. Tom 64

            Re: Science education...

            On homeopathy:

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dFYfeADX7g

            This always makes me laugh

        2. JLH

          Re: Science education...

          TRT ukgnome - your statements are not contradictory.

          Read Ben Goldacre's book Bad Science. Ben is no fan of homeopathy.

          However he discusses it in the book - it works as well as a placebo, because the practitioner takes time to take a medical history, and gives you something for the complaint.

          I agree 'the something' is water. Or a sugar pill.

          So vefore you get me wrong - homeopathy is completely useless if there is something serious wrong with you (and indeed it can stop you seeking real treatment and is therefore actively dangerous).

          But in the cases of minor conditions it works as a placebo.

        3. Vic

          Re: Science education...

          Homeopathy lacks biological plausibility and the axioms of homeopathy have been refuted for some time.

          Of course.

          But it is a placebo. And the placebo effect is *incredibly* powerful.

          Derren Brown did a programme called "Fear and Faith" in which he introduced a military-derived drug called Rumyodin. Given the context of this post, I'm sure you can guess the ending - but the effect was truly magnificent. I recommend a watch...

          I was reading some material about drug trials a while back - apparently, it is very easy to prove the effectiveness of just about any drug that's ready for trials, but the tricky part is showing that the drug is significantly better than a placebo; said placebo can have such a major effect that even known-good drugs show no improvement over it...

          Vic.

          1. JLH

            Re: Science education...

            Vic, talking about drugs and the placebo effect,

            is there not a great influence on the surroundings, the company and the expectations when drugs are taken?

            I remember reading about a study where students were given alchohol, or a drink tasting the same but with no alcohol at all. Most reported feeling 'drunk''

            And no, I'm not going to repeat the experiment by dropping some acid and convinginc myself that it is a bit of blotting paper which will do nothing to me!

            1. Vic

              Re: Science education...

              is there not a great influence on the surroundings, the company and the expectations when drugs are taken?

              Absolutely. The TV programme I mentioned goes into this in some detail.

              I remember reading about a study where students were given alchohol, or a drink tasting the same but with no alcohol at all. Most reported feeling 'drunk''

              There's a late-night, BBC3 programme called "The Indestructibles" which does assorted sciencey-type things. One of the more interesting bits is various experimentation they do with a pair of identical twins - testing with a fairly decent control subject.

              One of the articles was about whether you get drunker on bitter or lager[1], so they had one twin drinking bitter, the other lager. Quoted ABV was the same for each. And the film showed the pair of them getting utterly smashed at the same rate.

              Then came the interesting bit - the revelation that one of them was actually drinking an alcohol-free drink. The experiment was actually to test the placebo effect by seeing if convincing a man that he was drinking high-strength alcohol would make him drunk. It did. Most assuredly so...

              Vic.

              [1] I might have mis-remembered exactly what they were drinking. Being late at night, the only reason the telly was on was because I'd just got in from the pub myself.

        4. TRT Silver badge

          Re: Science education...

          *double sigh*

          Homeopathy lacks biological plausibility and the axioms of homeopathy have been refuted for some time.

          *triple sigh*

          It doesn't need to have a plausible mechanism to have an effect. It has an effect, it's called the placebo effect and though that won't reattach a severed arm it still can make you feel better if you're a bit under the weather. Same as a park on a beautiful summer's day or a coy smile from a pretty girl can make you stop sniffling and you feel like life's worth living. OK?

  5. Norman Hartnell
    Facepalm

    Sigh

    "they’re going to let the British public vote on which of the six problems should be the focus of the prize this year. "

    Icon says it all, really. We could easily find £10m for each of the six projects, for less than one mile of HS2.

    1. MJI Silver badge

      Re: Sigh

      HS2 should cost a fraction of that but someone somewhere screwed it, But at least it will help with flight option.

    2. TRT Silver badge

      Re: Sigh

      This is a very good point. Have an upvote.

  6. Aristotles slow and dimwitted horse Silver badge

    "Regular brits"

    That's like, all of us right?

    1. Omgwtfbbqtime Silver badge

      Re: "Regular brits"

      I think your toilet habits are your own business.

      Me? I'm fairly irregular.*

      *Yes, I know you did not ask, but I like oversharing.

    2. Tom 13

      Re: "Regular brits"

      Well, not me.

      Although I wouldn't object to being an honorary "Regular brit" (with or without the correct capitalis/zation).

  7. MJI Silver badge

    My answers

    Antibiotics - £10 million there, phages research and crack down on stupid usage.

    Water - spend some money on storage and piping it around.

    Flight to Scotland - go by rail and use nuclear power stations to get zero carbon.

    Paralysis - I think this is already not far away to be honest.

    Dementia - I think post it notes were a good idea

    Food - eat what is in season and encourage population shrinkage.

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