The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) consultation on its draft strategic planning documents. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled by the General Secretary, Professor Andrew Miller, and the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands, with the assistance of a number of Fellows with extensive experience in biological science research.
Overall, the RSE supports the strategic emphasis on the three overlapping areas of "integrative biology", "data sets and models" and "tools", as crucial areas that will contribute to the quantitative understanding of biological systems. The focus on multi-disciplinary approaches and on people is also to be welcomed.
The specific issues identified for consideration are addressed below:
The RSE supports the BBSRC ten-year vision and the increasing need to link biologists with bioinformaticians, computer scientists and mathematical modellers as traditional approaches in the biological sciences are changing. This focus should impact upon many branches of biology, including phylogeny, which greatly benefited from recent advances in molecular biology and in bioinformatics. Expanding the reductionist molecular view of biology to see molecules, cells and organisms as an integrated whole will, however, be a real challenge, requiring more inter-disciplinary effort than in the past, and the removal of barriers between disciplines and across institutional boundaries.
Tools and data sets have been identified as one of the three central science areas in the ten-year vision. Many of these are likely to originate within mathematics and the physical sciences, and will prove decisive in formulating the discipline of predictive biology. Such tools will undoubtedly include more sophisticated statistical methods in such areas as bio-informatics and the role of laser physics in biophotonics. These tools will also emphasise the need to foster biologists with greater numerical skills. While this may create challenges to the structure of current undergraduate courses, it also creates an opportunity for BBSRC to work with the various mathematical societies in the UK. Examples of similar collaboration include joint courses sponsored by EPSRC, the London Mathematical Society and the Royal Statistical Society, which have been developed at the graduate level to introduce theoretical physicists to some of the new mathematical techniques now available. Similar courses (albeit with different subject matter), offered to Ph.D. students in the biological sciences, would be an extremely effective way of increasing general mathematical awareness.
Strategic Plan 2003-3008
Strategic Objective 1: Excellent Science
The RSE supports the cross-cutting theme of Integrative Biology being the first priority area of this objective with a particularly strong emphasis on functional genomics, signalling and the study of model organisms as a means of promoting the understanding of biological systems and whole organisms. The output areas of sustainable agriculture, the healthy organism and science for bioindustry, however, are also important.
Strategic Objective 2: Tools and Technology
The RSE supports the emphasis on bioinformatics, on e-science through the next generation of computer architecture (also known as the GRID), on mathematical modelling and on biological nanotechnology. The focus on protein-based methodologies, for example proteomics and metabolomics, is important but there should also be recognition of the importance of non-protein cellular components (e.g. lipidomics, glycomics). These are of course less amenable to genomics-driven approaches but are nevertheless crucial for the understanding of cell organisation and signalling.
Strategic Objective 3: People
The RSE also supports the emphasis and support for research training and career development. There should, however, be consideration of better funding for PhD students with additional rewards for a smaller cohort of excellent students. Postdoctoral scientists also need to be better rewarded
Strategic Objective 4: Knowledge Transfer
The RSE agrees that this is a key area of activity. In this context, the RSE in partnership with the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) ran in 2000 and 2001 PPARC Enterprise Fellowships across the UK, designed to encourage the commercialisation of PPARC funded research. These one-year Enterprise Fellowships, developed initially by the RSE in partnership with Scottish Enterprise, have equipped post-doctoral researchers, or younger lecturers, with the hands-on business knowledge to enhance the commercialisation potential of their own research. They encourage the establishment of new start-up companies and allow young researchers to devote time developing their research from a commercial perspective. PPARC are continuing to fund the RSE for their scheme in 2002-2004 with a further 4 Fellowships and Scottish Enterprise has also recently announced a major expansion in the number of Enterprise Fellowships to be run by the RSE, with funding of £5.5 million for a further 80 new Enterprise Fellowships in Scotland.
Strategic Objective 5: Partnerships
There is a need for better links across the Research Councils. At present, some projects are still caught between Research Councils (e.g. the MRC/BBSRC, EPSRC/BBRC and NERC/BBSRC). The areas of chemical biology and biological chemistry, in particular, are developing as problem areas, falling between the BBSRC and EPSRC.
There should also be better co-ordination and planning of research infrastructure (e.g. between the Research Councils, the universities, the major medical charities and Government) in terms of specialised research facilities and major items of equipment. Imaginative ways need to be found to share the support of the essential posts needed to operate and sustain these facilities which are increasingly important in the biological sciences.
Strategic Priority 6: Efficient Organisation
Efficient organisation and resource management is crucial to retaining the confidence of the scientific community and the public. Proper accountability of Research Institutes is essential, as well as even-handed management of Institutes and University-based researchers. The BBSRC could also consider sharing the support of key research personnel with Universities in order to staff specialised research facilities and operate major items of equipment.
Delivering priorities and measuring success
The RSE believes that funding should be concentrated on proposals from individual researchers rather than primarily through big initiatives and programmes. Prediction of scientific advances is notoriously flawed and experience has shown that funding that follows good ideas and people more often results in significant breakthroughs and discoveries, than that which follows grand plans.
The scientific community is also becoming somewhat sceptical about the value of EU funding programmes, such as the EU Framework Programme 6, which require a large amount of effort and input for a poor success rate, and often with too many political strings attached. This should be addressed by the UK Research Councils in their dealings with the EU.
The best metric for measuring BBSRC research output is, like the RAE, the quality of the publications. Income from patents, licensing agreements, spinouts can also be used to measure the success of the research programmes at delivering science for UK industry. However, consideration must be taken of the many years it can take to successfully commercialise products in the biosciences, and so success can only be judged on long time horizons (e.g. 10 years). In addition, commercialisation may well occur outside the UK.
In responding to this consultation the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: A Science Strategy for Scotland (July 2000); The Are We Realising Our Potential Inquiry (July 2000; January 2001); Review of the supply of scientists and engineers (August 2001) Scottish Higher Education Review (January 2002) and Scottish Higher Education Review: Second Consultation Paper (August 2002).