A £10 million prize fund has been announced in a bid to help solve one of the great issues of the day.
Details of the Longitude Prize, launched by Prime Minister David Cameron at the G8 summit last year, were unveiled at a news conference at the BBC.
The prize commemorates the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act. In 1714, the British government challenged inventors to solve one of the great scientific challenges of the time - how to pinpoint a ship's location at sea by knowing its longitude.
The challenge was solved by Yorkshire watchmaker and carpenter John Harrison, who designed the chronometer, the first seafaring clock that allowed accurate navigation.
In an attempt to replicate that pioneering spirit, the public is being asked to vote on six major challenges to be highlighted on the science programme Horizon on BBC2 on Thursday.
The six challenges on which the public will be able to vote following the programme are:
- Paralysis - how can we restore movement to those with paralysis;
- Antibiotics - how can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics;
- Food - how can we ensure everyone has nutritious, sustainable food;
- Dementia - how can we help people with dementia to live independently for longer;
- Flight - how can we fly without damaging the environment;
- Water - how can we ensure everyone has access to safe and clean water.
By the end of June, the public vote will have decided which challenge will have been given a £10 million prize fund and up to five years to find a solution.
The prize has been developed by innovation foundation Nesta and Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees, who told the event: "In the 18th century, parliament offered an award of £20,000, millions in today's money.
"Today there is no number one problem, and the first step is to choose the theme of the prize."
He pointed out that today's research agenda is on a far larger scale than 300 years ago.
"The £10 million is less than one thousandth of what the UK spends on R&D (research and development) each year, so it maybe won't change the world, but it could have an important impact."
This Thursday's edition of Horizon will mark the programme's 50th anniversary. The result of the public vote will be made known on The One Show on BBC1. Universities and science minister David Willetts said: "This prize will challenge scientists to tackle one of today's greatest scientific problems."