The chief focus of this week’s meetings – I like to try and make decent clusters from my travelogue – was Industrial Biotechnology in various guises, not least since Bioenergy and Industrial Biotechnology are a key element of our Strategic Plan.

We had an important and useful meeting with the Technology Strategy Board, with whom we enjoy an increasingly close and integrated relationship (including a shared employee). Grants are in the throes of being judged and awarded as part of the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Innovation Platform, while there are other Healthcare activities in Regenerative and in Personalised Medicine. Future ones are potentially likely to include Industrial Biotechnology and Big Data as well.

It has been joked that the difference between Science and Innovation is that Science involves the production of research from money, while Innovation involves the production of money from research. A meeting organised by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, presciently timed to allow the new Minister of States for Universities and Science at BIS, David Willetts, to speak, focussed on Science, Engineering and Innovation, and was based in part on recent reports such as those of Hauser, Dyson and COST, and the RS’s own ‘Scientific Century’.

The traditional means by which we scope out our plans for an area involves the construction of a wide-ranging Panel of experts, and we have initiated this process for Industrial Biotechnology. I was pleased to attend the first meeting, though I had to leave twice – for the BBC (news 24 and World) and CNN – to give views on questions resulting from the huge interest in the creation by Craig Venter’s team from synthetic DNA of an autonomously replicating mycoplasma (dubbed Synthia). There is little doubt that synthetic biology of this type will in time bring huge benefits, although I see this as a continuum of technological improvement, in which more traditional methods of so-called ‘white’ (i.e. microbial) biotechnology will continue to be employed for a long time. Then again, as has been said, you do not discover electricity by seeking to improve candle technology.

Step changes in photosynthetic efficiency are the target of out IdeasLab, for which applications are sought (first send an email to This is a 5-day intensive workshop organised by BBSRC and the US National Science Foundation, that will bring together up to 30 researchers from all disciplines from the UK and US (biologists, chemists, physicists, engineers, modellers for example – if you can help shed light <ahem> on this problem then please apply, whatever your background). It aims to develop multidisciplinary, transformative, and speculative high-reward proposals (looking for a step change in the efficiency of photosynthesis), via outline proposals that are continually refined through ‘real time’ peer review by respected academics (teams have to present their ideas every night to other participants and to the five mentors, and receive feedback). A select number of high-quality outlines will then be invited to submit full proposals and are likely to be funded assuming they have done what they said they were going to do at the workshop (this will be checked by mentors with no further peer review). Up to $8M is available, and the Application deadline to participate in the workshop is 15 June 2010.

Videos are an increasingly useful way of disseminating scientific knowledge, this link provides some summaries of one of the methods of making bioinformatic methods easier to reuse by non-specialists.

Sometimes methods of interest and use to biologists come from unexpected places; witness a paper on the use of quantum field theory to describe (accurately) the species-area relationship for biodiversity in ecology (and see an earlier paper for the use of field theories in cellular biophysics).

Finally, based in part on the concept of a Gross National Happiness, and noting that I rarely blog about our support and strategies for research in psychology, I am becoming aware of a new research area, that of well-being research, summarised in an interesting recent book. What’s not to like?

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