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Prince Harry sitting in a crowd wearing a suit and tie.
Prince William presented the Earthshot Prize in 2022. Chris Jackson/Staff via Getty Images

Do glitzy awards like the Earthshot Prize actually help solve problems of climate change? – podcast

Every year, tens of billions of dollars are spent by universities, research institutes and private companies to develop solutions for climate change. Yet when a government decides to fund research for a piece of technology or branch of science, it rarely makes news.

In recent years, high-profile climate solutions prizes have started to buck that trend. These prizes are often awarded to innovators or researchers who are proposing solutions to the many problems facing the planet. Compared to traditional funding pathways, the amounts are relatively small – in the thousands or sometimes millions of dollars – and they are often backed by billionaires and celebrities.

In this episode of The Conversation Weekly, we speak with three researchers who study how climate research is funded to find out whether the pomp and circumstance of these prizes outweighs the actual research they fund, or whether they actually play an important role in the larger effort to find climate solutions.

Climate innovation prizes often work like a competition or a bounty. Someone, usually a rich benefactor, will offer a sum of money to the first person who can accomplish a particular goal or solve a certain problem, and people will compete for the pot of money.

The first innovation prize was announced almost 300 years ago, explains David Reiner, a professor of technology policy at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. In the 1700s, sailors were easily able to measure their latitude using stars, but tracking one’s position east to west required accurate timekeeping. “So a prize was launched by British Parliament offering 20,000 pounds,” says Reiner. “They were trying to find a clock that would be viable on a ship.”

This prize, roughly equivalent to a million and a half British pounds today, triggered a number of inventions that eventually led to the invention of the marine chronometer. The accurate timekeeping device revolutionized navigation at sea.

The nature of research funding has changed dramatically since the 1700s, as Abbas Abdul, a research fellow who studies science policy at the University of Sussex in the U.K., explains. He says the kind of work that gets funded today is “interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and cross-disciplinary research” and often done at large, Western universities. Climate prizes can “fill in the gaps of this research,” in particular with regard to climate adaptation, says Abdul. One of the reasons they are good at that is that climate prizes are often awarded to researchers or inventors in the global south who are outside of traditional funding systems.

Climate innovation prizes are not without their controversy, though. They are often bankrolled by the extremely wealthy and are announced at extravagant awards ceremonies hosted by celebrities who fly in for the occasion. These are far from carbon neutral events. But according to Mark Maslin, a professor of earth systems science at University College London in the U.K., the entertainment is part of the value. Maslin was hired by the BBC to fact-check their broadcast of the Earthshot Prize awards ceremony in 2022. “The reason why the BBC asked me to actually check the scripts is because the whole show was put on by the BBC Light Entertainment Unit, as opposed to the science unit,” he explains. According Maslin, that’s a good thing. “It is little bit of razzmatazz, and it basically says ‘Guess what? Solving climate change is cool.’ And this is something that hasn’t actually happened until very recently.” Maslin believes that getting hopeful messages about climate solutions into popular media can help inspire people to action and that climate prizes are an excellent way to do just that.

Listen to the full episode to explore how, despite their small dollar amounts, climate prizes play a unique cultural role in the search for climate solutions.

This episode was written and produced by Katie Flood and hosted by Dan Merino. The executive producer is Mend Mariwany. Eloise Stevens does the show’s sound design, and the theme music is by Neeta Sarl.

You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email. You can also subscribe to The Conversation’s free daily email here. A transcript of this episode will be available soon.

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