Douglas Kell, chief executive of The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
"I see us reinventing agricultural research and commercial plant breeding – especially given the scientific opportunities afforded by nextgeneration genome sequencing."
Backgrounder: The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the main public funder of bioscience research in the UK, investing over £420 million annually in cutting edge bioscience research and related training. The research funded by BBSRC is underpinning advances in crop science, food safety, diet and health and pharmaceuticals. The East of England receives more BBSRC funding than any other UK region and is home to four of the five BBSRC Institutes: the Institute of Food Research and John Innes Centre in Norwich, the Babraham Institute in Cambridge and Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, Hertfordshire. Professor Douglas Kell became chief executive of BBSRC in October 2008. Prof Kell was previously Professor of Bioanalytical Science at the University of Manchester and Director of the BBSRC-funded Manchester Centre for Integrative Systems Biology. He has a long association and involvement with BBSRC and BBSRC science. He has been a member of BBSRC Council and served on a number of further panels and boards for the Research Council. 1) What’s the BBSRC funding model? BBSRC invests over £420m a year in cutting edge bioscience research and training. A large proportion of this is given to world class research projects in universities and institutes in response to ideas from researchers which then go through peer review. Occasionally we go out to our research community and ask them to come to us with proposals for funding in particular areas, for example bioenergy or avian flu. We do this when we see a need for research to address a particular strategic problem. We also invest funding in infrastructure and research at five BBSRC Institutes, four of which are in the East of England. They provide national strategic, mission-led research capability. BBSRC funds a large number of PhDs to ensure the UK has the bioscientists it needs in the future. BBSRC funds research and training across all the nations and regions of the UK but the East of England currently receives the highest level of funding.
2) What has been or will be the effect of the recession on BBSRC spending plans? BBSRC has a funding settlement from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills that runs until 2011. However, like all branches of the public sector we must ensure we are delivering maximum value for the money.It is also clear that money will be tight across Government in coming years so we must make sure that we are explaining the value and impact of BBSRC science. As the Prime Minister has recently said, investing in science and research is the way to ensure the UK is well placed once the recession ends. There is ample evidence that advances in Science and Technology have been the only serious contributors to economic growth.
3) There’s no doubting the excellence of UK biotech research, yet without any truly world class biotech companies, we seem unable to commercialise it fully; what needs to be done to address this problem? The issues of the funding gap are well known, and bodies like the BioIndustry Association have been stressing this for years. We need to work effectively to ensure we are making the most of the social and economic potential of the UK’s bioscience base. BBSRC is working across its remit to build a culture of ‘excellence with impact’. We will always plan to fund excellent science, but we need to ensure researchers fully examine the potential for every idea to be exploited. BBSRC has a number of schemes and programmes in place to build this culture and to support and fund those researchers who have research that could be commercialised. 4) Private equity funding has been drying up in biotech, should the BBSRC step in, if not who? BBSRC has a role to play in supporting researchers and companies to work together and to build a cultural of entrepreneurialism amongst our scientists. We also ‘buy’ the time of researchers with a proposal they want to commercialise and provide funding for proof-of-concept, to bridge the gap between the lab and commercialisation. Other bodies work with industry further along the ‘innovation pipeline’, such as the Technology Strategy Board, and we would look to work with them to explore the most appropriate ways to support particular sectors. In our present funding model we are not going to replace private equity capital. There has been some talk of a partnership between Venture Capital and the public purse, and one would hope that there is scope for developing this, especially in present circumstances.
5) Which have been the BBSRC’s most successful investments? It depends how you measure success (and it is inevitably post hoc)! We have funded such a wide range of excellent research across our very wide remit it is hard to single out single successes. At one end, relatively smallscale investment in virology research at the Institute for Animal Health has informed our understanding of Bluetongue virus. This helped the nation’s response when Bluetongue reached East Anglia in 2007 and independent studies have estimated the scientific knowledge directly saved £485m and over 10,000 jobs in UK agriculture. In another project grant to the University of Cambridge we funded work to develop an idea for a novel means of sequencing DNA, and this led to a company (Solexa) that was sold to Illumina for $600m in 2007. At an earlier stage of development, BBSRC has invested almost £100m in systems biology research in the last five years. This funding and the foresight of my predecessors means that the UK is amongst the world leader in this area of science that combines biology with computing, and which sees problems, environments and organisms as a whole, not just studying small parts. This will change the way biology is done.
6) The BBSRC has long supported groups in the East of England, but more recently has seemed to be eager to elevate research to another level with the modernisation of the IFR as a Diet and Health centre and plans for a new Genome Analysis Centre, both in Norwich, what is the rationale behind this? BBSRC funds excellent research wherever it is being done across the country. The East of England is well placed to compete effectively for funding because of the world class universities and institutes in the region. BBSRC is also focusing strategic funding in areas where bioscience can make a real difference to the issues we face, particularly food security and diet and health, underpinned by new bioinformatics technology. Investment in food research at IFR, plant science at the John Innes Centre and plant, animal and microbe genomics and bioinformatics at the planned Genome Analysis Centre is part of this.
7) Which in your opinion are the big growth areas in biotech that the UK needs to focus on for the sake of its long term prosperity? We need to ensure that we have a strong and vibrant bioscience base with a solid pipeline of skilled scientists. Within this strong base we need to make sure we are investing in areas where the UK has real strength while being ready to support and exploit emerging areas. BBSRC priorities include sustainable bioenergy, research into healthier ageing, crop science, systems biology and synthetic biology. I also anticipate considerable growth in the use of biological systems to produce chemicals, since one day the oil will run out and we shall need to do things differently. We may anticipate that biopharmaceuticals will continue to be a growth area. I see us reinventing agricultural research and commercial plant breeding – especially given the scientific opportunities afforded by nextgeneration genome sequencing. Developing technology for solving biological problems offers many commercial opportunities. The emergence of Web 2.0 and Semantic Web technologies will affect everything. Information management is the key to success in biology and biotechnology.
8) Under Barack Obama, the US is stepping up its work in stem cells once more, what is the UK and the BBSRC doing to maintain any lead it has managed to build in the sector? BBSRC funds research to understand fundamental developmental biology and as such has probably invested more in under pinning stem cell science than any other Research Council. However, the crucial step now is to translate this world class basic science into application in the clinic which is largely outside of our remit. We continue to fund the basic science (including a number of projects in induced pluripotent stem cells, an important emerging area), and we are supporting the field by part funding and hosting the UK National Stem Cell Network which is working to pull together the various different subsets of stem cell research in this country. The announcement by President Obama should not been seen just in terms of the UK ‘losing’ any perceived lead. We need to work with the US and others to build new collaborations and to push the translation of stem cell science into therapies.
9) What are your greatest challenges going forward? This year is the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s famous ‘Two cultures’ lecture, and after all this time I do not think we have entirely reached a state where society places scientific evidence at the heart of its thinking. The peerreviewed scientific literature (at PubMed) is increasing at the rate of two papers per minute; developing the strategies to help our scientists mine and exploit this knowledge is going to be vital. The Pharmaceutical industry still suffers attrition rate of 95 per cent, and this is unsustainable. I therefore wish to see us develop mathematical models of human biochemistry and physiology (the ‘digital human’) that will help stop this.
10) What are your long-term strategic goals for the BBSRC? My overall long term strategic aim for BBSRC has to be to ensure that UK bioscience maintains its world leading position and that we do our utmost to maintain the funding levels that this requires. Within that I hope that we can focus BBSRC effort on specific areas where we can make a difference to major challenges. Our research community is particularly well placed to help tackle the looming food security crisis and to contribute to the UK’s wellbeing through diet and health research. This needs to be underpinned by developments in ‘big data’ handling. Modern bioscience research, such as in genomics, generates huge amounts of data, more than an individual can ever hope to process. We need the infrastructure and technology to handle and analyse this. Norwich, Cambridge and the East of England has a concentration of world class research centres and scientists in BBSRC’s field. Maintaining the health of this research base, along with bioscience across the whole of the UK, will be crucial to the future prosperity and wellbeing of the UK.