Longitude Prize 2014: An ethical viewpoint

By Professor Ben Mepham
Honorary Professor, University of Nottingham

image copyrightGetty Images, Science Photo Library
image captionOne of six global problems will be voted for by the public to be tackled by a £10 million prize fund

On the 19th of May 2014, a new prize fund was launched to encourage inventors and scientists to find solutions to six key problems facing the world.

The Longitude Prize 2014, named after the original challenge to solve the problem of sea-faring navigation, asks the UK public to choose just one global problem to be tackled by the £10 million prize fund.

But how do you choose between such different challenges? Ben Mepham, Honorary Professor of Applied Bioethics, gives some advice on how to be confident that your choice is ethically sound.

The winner of the first Longitude Prize in 1765, John Harrison, invented a chronometer that had far-reaching benefits for all sea travellers. If the current prize is to conform to the quest for such a global impact, perceptions of the value of the six challenges will be influenced by the anticipated scope of their impacts. Take the case of desalination of water. With almost half the world's population and over a quarter of its agriculture in areas with poor access to fresh water, the global impact of effective and affordable desalination systems could throw a vital life-line to many people currently living on the edge of survival.

But the numbers who benefit is not the only measure of assessing the soundness of your choice. Fair access to the benefits might well be of equal ethical importance, for instance.

For many people, ethics is a perplexing word - its religious, cultural and emotional overtones can seem to complicate common sense decisions. But, fundamentally, ethics seeks to answer the question "All things considered, what should I do?" And this means that far from being an abstract, hypothetical activity, ethical reasoning can have consequences of momentous practical importance.

Making choices

Undoubtedly, strong cases could be made for supporting each of the six Longitude Prize challenges, and it is not my aim to favour one particular project over another. Rather it is to suggest the sort of considerations that an ethical appraisal of each should entail. I'll mention certain challenges to illustrate specific points: but don't interpret that as an argument, for or against any particular proposal.

Let's start by identifying some almost universally-accepted ethical principles - respect for wellbeing, autonomy and fairness.

  • Wellbeing clearly concerns physical and mental health, but it's also about having access to sound educational, congenial social and safe environmental opportunities.
  • Autonomy is about being able to act according to personal choices e.g. to practise a particular religion, or none; travel freely; choose a sexual partner; or hold personal opinions that differ from others in your society.
  • Fairness concerns the equitable access to life's riches and opportunities that might be considered the birthright of each of the four children born every second on this planet.

These ideals are difficult to fully respect when applied to specific issues. Depending on circumstances, one principle usually seems more important than the others, e.g. even a project benefiting many people's health may be considered unfair because of limited access. So it's possible for equally well-meaning people to reach different ethical judgements.

Being aware of "scientism"

Unsurprisingly, given the context, there is an implicit assumption that scientific understanding and its technological application are crucial factors in addressing these global problems. But it's important to consider the potential role of alternative solutions. For example, developing intelligent integrated systems that allow dementia sufferers to exercise greater personal autonomy, by providing new life assistance systems, is obviously a scientific challenge. But arguably, increased investment in personal care (so-called hi-touch/low-tech approaches) might be a preferable strategy. The risk of placing undue emphasis on science in addressing social problems, known as scientism, needs to be seriously considered in making your choice.

The challenge of providing increased supplies of nutritious food is another with essentially global significance. It's worth reflecting that as each of us in Britain queues at the supermarket checkout, the scale of global malnutrition is equivalent to 13 other people in the queue, whose trolleys would be virtually empty. Some people might consider that solving this problem has more to do with political change than technological innovation; while the resistance to dietary change, demonstrated by the widespread rejection of highly nutritious meals based on insects, might be more effectively addressed by educational programmes than scientific investment.

Gut instincts

Well-meant ventures are, of course, liable to fail to deliver their objectives, because simply throwing money at a problem is no guarantee of success. So an important ingredient in your decision-making is what you perceive as the likelihood of success. For most people not deeply acquainted with the proposals, this is a very significant constraint. Most of us will ultimately rely on a sort of gut instinct (technically called tacit knowledge), based on our personal assessment of BBC Two's Horizon programme, supplemented by background reading. But it's important to remember that our knowledge of scientific advances and global problems is largely influenced by the news media, whose criteria of "newsworthiness" may give a quite selective view of world events.

Some will find it makes sense to base their vote on personal experience, such as having a family member suffering from paralysis. Others will decide that the prize should reflect global concerns, e.g. by developing carbon-zero aeroplanes or addressing the problem of antibiotic resistance.

The philosopher Karl Popper famously argued that the best way of arriving at sound decisions was to subject your speculations to strenuous and severe attempts to refute them. If they survived these hard tests, you should feel confident that your decisions were not just based on wishful thinking. I've suggested a number of tests by which the soundness of your choice might be assessed from an ethical perspective. Do the individual projects significantly enhance the respect due to people's wellbeing and autonomy, and are the benefits likely to be fairly distributed? Are the problems best solved by technology? Are the proposals sufficiently wide in their scope? Is there a high likelihood of success in the objectives?

Ultimately, an ethical decision is one made freely by a rational person, the justification for which could be explained to another rational person, who, however, would be free to disagree.

Ben Mepham is an Honorary Professor of the University of Nottingham and Visiting Professor of the University of Lincoln.

Vote now - you choose which problem you think should be tackled by the £10 million prize fund. Voting open to UK residents only and closes at 1910 BST on 25 June 2014.

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