The Longitude Prize: Why India should be in it to win it

Transcript of the speech by Sir James Bevan KCMG, British High Commissioner to India, Monday 12 October 2015.

James Bevan

It is a great pleasure for me to join you here today to launch this discussion of one of the biggest challenges facing our world today: how we tackle antimicrobial resistance.

As the High Commissioner of the United Kingdom, I am particularly delighted to be here, because to help find the answer to that momentous question, my government has launched the Longitude Prize – a £10 million challenge, open to India and the world, to find a way to conserve effective antibiotics for future generations.

Those of you who are history specialists will know that this is actually the second Longitude Prize. Three hundred years ago, the so-called problem of longitude was one of the biggest puzzles facing scientists, explorers, sailors and governments.

The problem was simply this: unless you know where you are, you can’t work out where you are going. For centuries sailors had known to work out their latitude – how far north or south they were of the equator – by measuring the distance between the Sun or certain stars and the horizon.

But 300 years ago, nobody knew for sure how to establish your longitude – how far east or west you were of a fixed point.

And without knowing both your latitude and longitude, you did not know where you were or where to go. On the high seas in the early 18th century, that was a very dangerous position to be in.

So solving the problem of longitude mattered to everyone, including of course the British Royal Navy. And in that pragmatic and empirical way the Brits have, it was decided that the best way to find a solution was to run a competition, with a cash prize. In 1714 the British government passed the Longitude Act which offered a large financial reward to the first person to demonstrate a practical method for determining the longitude of a ship at sea.

It was not easy. Many tried and many failed, but in 1773 there was a winner: John Harrison, a self-educated English clockmaker. He invented the marine chronometer, which by accurately telling the time even under the extreme conditions at sea, proved the key piece in the puzzle of accurately establishing longitude.

So John Harrison was awarded the Longitude prize. And in winning it, he not only made possible safe long distance sea travel, he also caused a scientific revolution that benefited the whole of mankind.

And it is our desire to see another such revolution that benefits the whole of mankind which has prompted today’s British government to run another competition, modelled on the Longitude Prize of three hundred years ago, to tackle one of the greatest challenges that faces the world today: anti-microbial resistance or AMR.

The new prize was announced by my Prime Minister, David Cameron, in 2012. A shortlist of six possible scientific challenges was drawn up to be put to a public vote. And last year it was announced that the prize would be awarded for helping to solve the problem in which many of you specialise: the problem of global antibiotic resistance.

The development of antibiotics is one of the great scientific achievements of our time. It has added an average of 20 years to our lives. Yet the rise of antimicrobial resistance is today threatening to make those antibiotics ineffective and common infections untreatable.

So the challenge is this: find a way to create a cost-effective, accurate, rapid, and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections that will allow health professionals worldwide to administer the right antibiotics at the right time. What we are looking for is a diagnostic tool that can rule out antibiotic use or help identify an effective antibiotic to treat a patient. Find it, and we will change the world.

Now my time as High Commissioner in this great country – over four years now – has taught me that if you want an inspired solution to a problem – any problem - India is usually the place to find it. You have world class talent, unrivalled drive and ambition, and an ability to think differently and creatively about a problem which is second to none.

So my hope – and indeed my belief – is that the solution to the AMR problem will not only be found, but will be found here in India by Indians. And that is my appeal to you today: please join this great endeavour, and please take part in this new competition.

The last Longitude Prize was won in the late 18th century by a Brit, at a time when the UK was becoming the dominant force in the world. And indeed the invention of the marine chronometer, and the advantages it conferred on the Royal Navy, probably accelerated that domination.

The 21st century is India’s century, and a century in which we want to build a new and ever-stronger partnership between the UK and India. There could be no better expression of that partnership than the new Longitude Prize being offered by the Brits and won by the Indians.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues, I encourage you to enter this competition. India should be in it. And India can win it.

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Press and Communications
British High Commission, Chanakyapuri
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Published 12 October 2015