£1 million for a great answer – but what’s the question?

MillionPoundsAt the G8 Innovation Conference in London yesterday, Prime Minister David Cameron announced a £1 million prize to the person or organisation that can identify and solve the biggest problem of our time.

He didn’t state what that problem was, but Cameron did say he wanted to “Get the nation engaged on what the biggest problems are in science and in our lives that we need to crack”.

“There are so many problems in our world that need that amazing solutions – whether it is a cure for dementia, solving the problem of diabetes, or having a flight from Britain to New York that’s carbon-free. Let’s challenge the public and challenge the scientist for which is the great problem we want to crack” he said.

It’s great to see politicians getting onboard with the concept of identifying great questions rather than focussing on the answers. Great answers will only ever follow if a powerful question is posed. And Cameron has opened the door for posing some really powerful questions.

However, if I was PM I would have done this a differently. What if Cameron were to offer the £1 million to the person who posed the most exciting and opportune question – and only the question? Once the winning question was announced, then the country could get behind answering that.

It would provide a very different dynamic to the current challenge, as offering the prize for the question and answer will stimulate organisations to shoe-horn their current offering into a question with the hope of winning the prize – and probably more importantly to them, the PR and kudos that being selected will deliver.

This is a great initiative by the Government which will be run through the Technology Strategy Board. Astronomer Royal Martin Rees will oversee the exercise for identifying the challenge and solution. Let’s hope there are more like it.

Incidentally, this isn’t the first time such a challenge has been set. The earliest challenge was most probably that set by the British government in 1714, when £20,000 was offered to the person who solved the issue of calculating longitude when at sea to help naval navigation of the oceans.

And another thought. Why did the PM offer £1 million? What if he’d offered £999,995 for the question – and said he would personally pay £5 from his own pocket for the solution. Then there would be two interesting targets and not just one. Perhaps that’s the million dollar question…

Comments are closed.