I have remarked before that events or intellectual activities often seem to cluster, and last week was no exception, with bio-chemistry (purposely hyphenated) and industrial biotechnology probably being the main themes. Chemical biology is an important part of our activities (witness for instance the Selective Chemical Intervention in Biological Systems initiative), and last week we ran (with MRC and EPSRC) an event (with many industry speakers as well as those from academia) to explore the relevant research agenda and how it might best be addressed. Clearly Industrial Biotechnology is mainly about making molecules (chemistry), and depending upon the complexity of the activities required involves finding and improving biocatalysts and (for whole cells) optimising the organisms and pathways in which they are embedded. To this end, I also attended a separate but intellectually related event (PDF) on the interface between Biocatalysis and Industrial Biotechnology, again with a good mixture of academia and industry. In both cases, it was easy to celebrate the fact that we have some very high-class communities who are able and willing to take forward our Industrial Biotechnology agenda. Not for the first time (PDF) one can recognise that investment in the UK’s excellence in basic biology and biotechnology translates more or less readily into the industries of the future. A number of strands in Biofuels have been based on producing oil or oil substitutes for the future, but comparatively few have as yet been based on using (or engineering) microbes to remove it, as in the necessary clean-up of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Given that natural microbial activities removed at least the lighter fractions of crude oil much more quickly than was anticipated following previous disasters of this type (e.g. Exxon Valdez, Torrey Canyon), this would seem an important programme worth pursuing with urgency.

Other meetings involved working up a strategy for e-infrastructure for research and innovation (mindful of the previous reports from OSI (PDF) and the recent RCUK International Review (PDF)) and a very productive meeting with the National Farmers Union, who recognise fully the importance of research to agricultural productivity.

I also enjoyed attending the opening of Charles Darwin House, a new London venue bringing together (presently) three relevant Learned Societies (The Biochemical Society, The British Ecological Society and the Society for Experimental Biology), at which Professor, now Sir, John Beddington, the Government Chief Scientist, gave a splendid salvediction. I was delighted to see that John was knighted in the recent Birthday Honours, and that my predecessor Professor Julia Goodfellow is now Dame Julia. I was also very pleased to note a number of other Honours that were conferred on members of our community, including A DBE to Prof Athene Donald and CBEs to Prof Martin Shirley and Dr Jackie Hunter.

I could not claim that Festivals constitute a major part of a Chief Executive’s life, but I did manage a brief visit to the truly excellent Cheltenham Science Festival, where I enjoyed listening to an interesting debate – moderated by Vivienne Parry and featuring Evan Harris (well known politician and science advocate), Richard Jones (contributor to the Royal Society’s The Scientific Century) and Will Hutton (political economist) – on the extent to which the present economic situation might damage (Government investment in) Science. Folk were generally optimistic, since any number of analyses (cited over time in this blog) show that Science and Technology are the chief drivers of economic growth. Other debates at Cheltenham included prominent members of our community speaking on Biofuels and on Food Security. Cheltenham is an important vehicle for public engagement, and with many tens of thousands of delegates there is clearly an appetite. I hope we can do even more next year.

I was also tweeted with a couple of questions about elements of our studentships programme. While email is a better medium than Twitter for such enquiries and answers, I can rehearse some thoughts here. BBSRC recognises that a PhD is a challenging undertaking for a student, and our competition approach to the award of studentships seeks to ensure that we invest only in departments that can provide not only excellent research training, but a supportive and well-managed training experience.  However, things can go wrong between a supervisor and a student, and it is the responsibility of the academic institution to ensure that students and supervisors have access to effective procedures for resolving problems.  This is described in section 10.25 of the BBSRC Studentships Guide (pdf).  BBSRC uses the formal university submission date for a student’s thesis in monitoring a department’s submission rate for its PhD students, and still regards this as one important indicator of how successful a department is.  We also use data from the next destination survey which is run by HESA to monitor the success of our students in moving on from their PhD.

Along with other councils, we have also increasingly devolved responsibility to universities in regard to the management of their PhD programmes and their funding, in order to provide flexibility and autonomy.  For example, Doctoral Training Grants (DTGs) give any university flexibility over the fees they charge (see our FAQs), and universities are free to withhold degrees if a student has unpaid bills.  However, the Research Councils do expect all DTG-funded students who are in receipt of a stipend to be receiving the agreed minimum from the training grant.  Where a university is charging a higher fee, or an additional college fee, for a DTG-funded PhD place, this should be met from the training grant and not by the student.  (See Iain Cameron’s letter (PDF) of 11 Jan 2006)

Biologists often specialise in the study of particular organisms, and this can be especially challenging when the organisms are hard or impossible to grow in isolation, something true of the very important arbuscular mycorrhiza that are presently catching my attention. I am also thinking about no-till agriculture, that may well be of importance, especially for carbon sequestration.

Much of my own academic work has tended to focus on the development of generally useful methods, and a couple of papers have recently come out, one on a tool for visualising metabolic pathways encoded in SBML, and the other a review of text mining methods for characterising biological events (most previous approaches having concentrated on entities rather than the interactions between them, the ‘events’).

Finally, on a sad note, I here record the very untimely passing of Prof Jaroslav Stark, onetime Director of the Centre for Integrative Systems Biology at Imperial College. He was a world class biomathematician, and a man of great insight, the highest scientific standards, and tremendous wit. He will be greatly missed.

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