Is debt putting British science at risk?

This was my opening statement at a debate at the Cheltenham Science Festival. This piece also appears as a guest blog on the Times’s Science blog “Eureka Zone”; see also Mark Henderson’s commentary on the debate as a whole.

The question we are posed is “Is debt putting British science at risk?” The answer to this question is certainly yes – we are all aware of the need to arrest the growth in the nation’s debt, and the science budget looks very vulnerable. There is a moral case against excessive debt – it is those in the next generations, our children, who will be paying higher taxes to service this debt. But we can leave a positive inheritance for future generations as well. The legacy we leave them comes from the science we do now. It’s this science that will underpin their future prosperity. We also know that future generations will have to face some big problems – problems that may be so big that they even threaten their way of life. How will we adapt to the climate change we know is coming? How will we get the energy we need to run our energy-dependent society without further adding to that climate change, when the cheap oil we’ve relied on may be a distant memory? How will we feed a growing population? How will we make sure that we can keep our aging population well? These are the problems that we have left future generations to deal with, so we owe it to them to do the science that will provide the solutions.

It’s worth reminding ourselves about the legacy we inherited – what’s happened as a result of the science done in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. I’m going to give just two examples. The first is in the area of health. Many people know the story of how monoclonal antibodies were invented by Cesar Milstein in the Cambridge MRC lab in 1975, a discovery for which he won the Nobel prize in 1984. Further developments took place, notably the method of “humanising” mouse antibodies invented by Greg Winter, also at the MRC lab. This is now the basis of a $32 billion dollar market; one third of all new pharmaceutical treatments are based on this technology, including new treatments for breast cancer, arthritis, asthma and leukemia. And, contrary to the stereotype that the UK is good at science but bad at making money from it, this technology is now licensed to 50 companies, earning £300 million in royalties for MRC. The two main spin-out companies were sold for a total of £932 million, one to AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, and these large companies are continuing to generate value for the UK from them. So this is a very clear example of a single invention that led to a new industry.

Often the situation is much more complicated than this; rather than a single invention one has a whole series of linked breakthroughs in science, technology and business. Like many other people, I’m delighted with my new smartphone; this is a symbol of a vast new sector of the economy based on information and communication technology. Many people know that the web as we now know it was made possible by the work of Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, a spin-off from the high energy physics effort at CERN; perhaps fewer know about the way the hardware of the web depends on optical fibre, in which so much work was done at Southampton. The basics of how to run a wireless network were developed by the company Racal, the spin-out from which, Vodafone, became a global giant in its own right. The display on my smartphone uses liquid crystals, invented at Hull, while newer e-book readers are starting to use e-ink displays reliant of the technology of Plastic Logic, a spin-out based in the plastic electronics work done in the Cavendish Lab in Cambridge in the 1990’s. So there’s a whole web of invention – an international effort, certainly, but one in which the UK has made a disproportionately large contribution, with economic value generated in all kinds of ways. It’s having a strong science base that allows one to benefit from this kind of web of innovation.

The case for science is made in the excellent Royal Society report “The Scientific Century – securing our future prosperity”. This had input from two former science ministers (one Conservative, one Labour) – Lords Sainsbury and Waldegrave, outstanding science leaders like Sir Paul Nurse and Mark Walport, a few rank-and-file scientists like myself, and was put together by the excellent Science Policy team at the Royal Society. I think it’s thoughtful, evidence-based and compelling.

I’d like to highlight three reasons why we should keep our science base strong.

Firstly, it will underpin our future prosperity. The transformation of science into products through spin-out companies is important, but the role of science in underpinning the economy goes much deeper than this. It’s through the trained people that come out of the science enterprise and its connections with existing industry that the so-called “absorptive capacity” of the economy is underpinned – the ability of an economy to make the most of the opportunities that science and technology will bring.

Secondly, it will give us the tools to solve the big problems we know we are going to face. Tough times are coming – the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir John Beddington, talks of the “perfect storm” we face, when continuing population pressure, climate change and the end of cheap energy all come together from 2020 onwards. It is science that will give us the tools to get through this time and prosper. We don’t know what will work in advance, so we need to support many different approaches. In my own area of nanotechnology, I’m particularly excited by the prospects for new kinds of solar cells that will be much cheaper and made on a much larger scale than current types, allowing solar energy to make a real contribution to our energy needs. And some of my colleagues are developing new ways of delivering drugs that can cross the blood-brain barrier and help us deal with those intractable neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s that are exacting such high and growing human and economic costs on our aging society. But these are just two from many promising lines of attack on our growing problems, and it’s vital to maintain science in its diversity. To cut back on science now, in the face of these coming threats, would amount to unilateral disarmament.

Thirdly, we should support science in the UK because we’re very good at it. The “Scientific Century” report quotes the figures that with 1% of the world’s population, and 3% of the world’s spending on science, we produce 7.9% of the worlds scientific papers. The impact of these papers is measured by the fact that they attract 11.8% of the citations that other scientific papers make; of the most highly cited papers – the ones that have the biggest impact – the UK produces 14.4%. Arguably, we produce more top quality science for less money than anyone else. And despite myths to the contrary, we are effective at translating science into economic benefit – our universities are now more focused on exploiting what they do than ever before, and as good at this as anywhere in the world. Our success in science is a source of advantage to us in a very competitive world, and a cause of envy in other countries that are investing significantly to try and match our performance.

So if debt is the problem we leave to future generations, science is the legacy we leave them; we owe it to them not to damage our science success story now.

Digital vitalism

The DNA that Venter’s team inserted into a bacteria, in his recently reported break-through in synthetic biology, was entirely synthetic – “Our cell has been totally derived from four bottles of chemicals”, he is quoted as saying. It’s this aspect that underlies the comment from Arthur Caplan that I quoted in my last post, that “Venter’s achievement would seem to extinguish the argument that life requires a special force or power to exist. This makes it one of the most important scientific achievements in the history of mankind.” Well, this is one view. But the idea that some special quality separates matter of biological origin from synthetic chemicals – chemical vitalism – is more usually assumed to have been killed by Wöhler’s synthesis of urea in 1828.

But while Venter is putting a stake through the heart of the long-dead doctrine of chemical vitalism, I wonder whether he’s allowed another kind of vitalism to slip in through the back door, as it were. The idea that his cells are entirely synthetic depends on a particular view of the flow of information – we have the sequence of his genome stored on his computer, this information is given physical realisation through the synthesis of the information carrying molecule DNA, and it is this information, when inserted into the lifeless husk, the shell of a bacteria whose own DNA has been removed, that sparks that cell into life, re-animating the cell under the control of the new DNA. In language Venter and others often use, the cell is “booted up”, as a dead computer with a corrupted operating system is restored to life with a new system disk. This idea that the spark of life is imparted by the information of the DNA seems perilously close to another kind of vitalism – let’s call it “digital vitalism”.

But does DNA control the cell, or does the cell control the DNA? Certainly, until Venter’s DNA molecule is introduced into its bacterial host, it is simply a lifeless polymer. It’s the machinery of the cell that reads the DNA and synthesises the protein molecules whose sequences are encoded within it. In many cases, it’s the regulatory apparatus of the cell that controls when that reading and synthesis is done – an enzyme is a tool, so there’s no point making it unless it is needed. Here the DNA seems less like a controller directing the operation of the cell, and more like a resource for the cell to draw on when necessary. And, it seems, bacteria endlessly swap bits of DNA with each other, allowing the fast spread of particularly useful tools, like resistance to antibiotics. This isn’t to deny that DNA is absolutely central to life of all sorts – without it the cell can’t renew itself, much less reproduce – but perhaps the relationship between the DNA and the rest of the cell is less asymmetric and more entangled than this talk of control implies.

How much do we need to worry about a few arguable metaphors? Here, more than usually, because it is these ideas of complete control and the reduction of biology to the digital domain that are so central in investing the visions of synthetic biology with such power.