In December I was delighted to participate, with MRC Chief Executive Sir Leszek Borysiewicz and Science Minister Lord Drayson, at the event celebrating the publication of the UK’s largest survey of public attitudes to stem cell science. The occasion was important in several ways. First, the findings showed public support for basic science and its translation into treatments for serious conditions (and there is an interesting discussion to be had on how people perceive the relative seriousness of different conditions). Secondly, the meeting took place shortly after the high-profile demonstration of research feeding into treatments – the use of stem cells in a trachea transplant – for which part of the process derived from BBSRC-funded research by Anthony Hollander at the University of Bristol. Thirdly, the study illustrated that public dialogue is becoming embedded in UK research culture – BBSRC’s Bioscience for Society Panel will be advising us on our response to the findings and recommendations.
A particularly exciting area is induced pluripotency in adult stem cells, a way of restoring to them the flexibility of embryonic cells to specialise into a wider range of cell types. BBSRC has recently funded new grants on this approach totalling around £1M in a shared programme with MRC.
Some media have identified advances in stem cell research as the science achievement of the year; and the findings of an independent review of the UK National Stem Cell Network, commissioned by BBSRC on behalf of the sponsoring Research Councils, have been published with recommendations for building on its good foundations.
Stem cell science is an exemplar of BBSRC’s commitment to the ‘excellence with impact’ agenda that I and my senior colleagues stressed at our recent roadshows to the research community. But there have been many others during 2008. I invite you to take a look at some of them. The diverse topics include: fruit fly clues to genes implicated in ageing; aphids as sentinels of climate change; novel regulation of carbon dioxide fixation in plants; purple tomatoes; new insights into asthma and allergy treatments, tackling MRSA, and the cause of motor neurone disease.
Science is also a people business. Prizes and awards are a measure of the esteem of our community. This year was no exception with plant scientist David Baulcombe FRS of the University of Cambridge winning the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research – an eloquent illustration of the interdisciplinary relevance of contemporary bioscience; Mandy MacLean of the University of Glasgow receiving the American Thoracic Society’s prestigious Estelle Grover Award; Caroline Dean FRS of the John Innes Centre being elected a foreign associate of the US National Academy of Sciences; and Keith Goulding, David Powlson and Andy Whitmore of Rothamsted Research being awarded a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize as some of the scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Cambridge, which has received significant funding from BBSRC since its inception, was awarded a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its entrepreneurial approach to exploiting biotechnological research.
BBSRC plays an important role in enabling talented researchers to deliver exciting new research results by providing the best possible research environment and infrastructure. Increasingly this means enabling intellectual partnerships through multidisciplinary working and ensuring critical mass, as well as funding for new research tools and resources. This year, important new centres have been formed, including IBERS at Aberystwyth University and a new Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh, and we have continued to support developments at the BBSRC Systems Biology centres.
None of this takes place in a vacuum. BBSRC’s basic and strategic science is core to several key national policy areas, including food security, diet and health, and healthy ageing, as well as in providing the skilled individuals needed in a knowledge economy. I am certain that BBSRC will deliver its excellence with impact agenda in these areas and across the biosciences, and I thank everyone in the community for their commitment.
Season’s greetings and felicitations to all for 2009.