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The end of biology?

Posted by , on 9 July 2013


‘England is the only nation on earth that has managed to limit the power of kings by resisting them, and has finally established a wise system of government in which the ruler is all-powerful when it comes to doing good, and has his hands tied if he attempts to do evil.’ Voltaire, Lettres philosophiques (1734).


Recently, I read an editorial in a high profile journal from a high profile biochemist encouraging the scientific establishment to, amongst other things, ‘strike creative sparks among both individual investigators and self-assembled teams across the continuum, and incentivize support and participation from multiple stakeholders.’ This followed on from my recent introduction to all things Crick from Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel Prize winner and inaugural director of the Francis Crick Institute for UK Bioscience Innovation and Incentivized Revenue Generation, or whatever it is called. For those who have been on Mars for the last couple of years, the Francis Crick Institute will replace the National Institute for Medical Research up at Mill Hill in north east London and is a collaboration between Imperial, UCL, KCL, CRUK, the Wellcome Trust and the MRC. It will be one of the largest and most prominent bioscience institutes in the world when it opens its doors near King’s Cross in 2015.

In his address, Sir Paul (who, lest it be forgotten, with his ‘President of the Royal Society’ hat on, has said some wonderful things about the need to keep basic science alive in the UK) talked of the need to identify ‘scientific athletes’. To this end the Crick will impose a career structure whereby PIs are hired for 6, possibly 12, years before being ‘supported’ to move on to a UK university appointment. For the cynical members of the audience (not just me), this meant that after, say, a very optimistic 4 years of a productive PhD plus 2 successive productive postdocs totalling 6 years, PIs are given 12 years at most before being ‘supported to move on’. A female colleague asked the excellent question of how this structure corresponds to lip service of supporting women in science, by implication those wanting a family. The honest answer came that scientists minded to would start a family once they have left the Crick ‘with support’! Just to re-emphasise the point: taking the very optimistic scenario above, this involves starting a family just when your contract expires, aged 43. Is it fair (or wise) to expect anyone interested in having a family, particularly a woman, to wait until 43? And in any case, do UK biology departments really face such an uncompetitive hiring market(!) that they need a steady supply of excellent but unemployed PIs aged at least 43 with no history of relying upon grant applications and no teaching experience?

But that’s not the main problem…

The language surrounding the Crick chimes perfectly with the recent trend away from emphasising basic research amongst research councils. To their credit, I have only ever heard MRC and BBSRC representatives publically state that they support the best science, irrespective of its field, likely outcome, or relation to strategic objectives. However, this meets with widespread scepticism in the scientific community in my experience, and quite correctly. If that were so, why do strategic objectives or impact statements exist at all? Such language also chimes perfectly with the move by the Wellcome Trust to decrease the breadth of its portfolio by concentrating funding in a smaller number of individuals (scientific athletes?) by getting rid of responsive mode project grants. At what point in history was science advanced by decreasing the breadth of people doing it? Indeed, to his credit Sir Paul Nurse in his Crick address did make the point that all things considered, small labs are more productive than large ones, not less – the target size for labs at the Crick will be 5.

Biology is forgetting itself. Fundamental insights cannot be dictated from above by working groups that develop strategy statements or policy documents. It is as simple as that. Physicists have asked governments to get together and put astonishingly vast amounts of money into building a very expensive tunnel containing a very large gun under the Alps, simply to further their goal of understanding the fundamental structure of nature. And they have succeeded. Why are we as biologists pandering to the need for ‘demonstrable impact in terms of revenue generation or societal benefit’ (I am not directly quoting BBSRC grant writing notes here, but I might as well be)? We all trot out the truism to one another that more eyes are better than fewer in science and that unexpected discoveries are often the most insightful. But that isn’t good enough. Yes Francis Crick (remember him?) and Jim Watson could not have written the impact statement for the structure of DNA. But the point is that they should never have had to*. We as biologists need to make this point to people in power, to the public, and above all to ourselves – lest basic biology be seriously compromised.

In the UK, we have a proud tradition of free enterprise and free exploration of the natural world, simply for its own sake. The oldest scientific society in the world (the one that now alas has only a part-time president) was founded here on these principles. Just under a century later, Voltaire escaped state interference in his ideas by coming here to express them. We ought to be extremely proud of this heritage. And we ought to defend it vigorously.

*they didn’t have to of course, but you know what I mean.


This post was also published in the author’s own blog.

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Categories: Discussion, Funding, Lab Life

One thought on “The end of biology?”

  1. This is a very thought-provoking piece Thomas – thanks for posting!
    We’d be really interested to hear how the policies discussed here compare in other countries. Do female scientists feel ‘unsupported’ if they want to take a break from the lab to start a family? Are time-limited PI appointments a good or a bad thing? Is translational/commercial/societal impact taking over and does this impede the best basic research from being done? There are lots of important questions raised here, and we’d love to hear your thoughts!

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