As part of the 350th anniversary celebrations of the Royal Society, I attended a breakfast meeting that launched the publication “The Scientific Century”, summarising the many intellectual achievements and social and economic benefits that flow from scientific research. There was, inter alia, unanimous recognition that scientific research was the main driver of a society’s development, and that its funding needed to be both long-term and ring-fenced. This proposition was rehearsed by each of the spokespersons at the latest round of pre-election debates featuring Adam Afriyie, Lord Drayson and Evan Harris, this one the first webcast from within the Palace of Westminster, and available on the website of the Royal Society of Chemistry, who hosted the event.

This e-availability enabled me to catch up with the debate afterwards, as when it was live I was chairing the latest meeting of our Strategy Advisory Board. Given the recent publication of our Strategic Plan, much of our focus was on implementation and delivery. We also considered a review of the utility of our earlier scheme for the provision of ‘mid-range’ equipment (£50-250k) – the Research Equipment Initiative – as well as our funding portfolios in studentships, fellowships and several major scientific areas, and the challenges and opportunities provided by next-generation sequencing. Clearly many of these involve the storage, distribution and analysis of eye-watering amounts of data, as the numbers of PetaBytes produced by biologists potentially dwarf those likely to be produced by even large-scale physics experiments. By way of example, the Beijing Genomics Institute recently announced that it was purchasing no fewer than 128 Illumina Hiseq2000 instruments, each of which is capable of producing 30x coverage of 2 human genomes – ca 200 Gigabases – in a single run (taking 8d). I was told that the BGI can now sequence one human genome equivalent every 14 minutes! Its adverts refer to 2Tb per day and 40PB of storage.

I am more than mindful of the scaled but still huge challenges that will come from our own genomics and other activities, not least those of TGAC, as well as the democratisation of large-scale data generation, whose fruits and availability for integrative biology we shall wish to exploit. To this end, I convened a small workshop of experts and interested parties to help develop some of our thinking and experiments on the potential of cloud computing to contribute to the solutions of the bioinformatics problems that we shall soon be facing. I think we have a skeleton structure of how to go forward, and will be making this available as and when. This week I am speaking via video link at a Data-Intensive Research Workshop, saving considerable travel time and carbon footprint.

Food security is one of our chief agenda items, and we have been working with many partners to optimise the generation and delivery of the appropriate solutions. Food Security is well recognised as a global issue, and the result of much endeavour was the launch last week of the Global Food Security programme, coordinated by BBSRC and involving multiple Research Councils and Government Departments. At the formal event, I commented that the seriousness of the challenge we were facing in Global Food Security was matched only by the seriousness of the partners in coming together to provide solutions. Thus our very distinguished speakers were Prof John Beddington, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (and prescient promoter of the Food Security  agenda), Prof Alan Thorpe, Chief Executive of NERC and Chair of RCUK, Peter Kendall, recently re-elected President of the National Farmers Union and advocate of the importance of science in agriculture, and Lord (Bryan) Davies, Senior Minister and Defra Minister in the Lords. The 21st century is truly both the scientific century and the century of bioscience.

The modes of action of many older drugs, that were developed before targeted molecular assays became the norm, are often unknown. One paper that caught my attention concerned the mode of action of the classical antimalarial quinine. This implied that it exerted its effects, at least in part, through inhibition of tryptophan uptake, a nice example of the interactions between drugs and transporters, and of the structural similarities between successful drugs and intermediary metabolites. Indeed, a combination of the assessment of metabolite structures and network analyses can give clues for the design of novel anti-infectives.

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