As so often, last week’s activities seemed to cluster on a subset of activities. We had a very useful third meeting of the Industrial Biotechnology (IB) Leadership Forum (and see its latest Newsletter), with updates on a wide range of topics. These included the Centre for Process Innovation at Wilton, home of the National Industrial Biotechnology Facility (see also the BIS Manufacturing and Materials Newsletter), activities at the European Forum for Industrial Biotechnology  meeting in Edinburgh (and see video) and others that week, Industrial Biotechnology as a core part of the Knowledge-Based BioEconomy (a term that had actually originated under the UK and German EU Presidencies around 2005/6), the development of necessary skills (led by David Brown of the IChemE), and a presentation by Iain Wilcock of Seventure on the (venture capital) funding of Industrial Biotechnology. I outlined where we were with our own developments, while Jonathon Porritt, representing Forum for the Future, led a discussion of the possible (perceived and real) risks of introducing new technologies such as IB, and how we should develop relevant public engagement activities.

A number of other engagements this week also revolved around the ideas of Risk and Risk management. Starting at the top, the Cabinet Office oversees the Government’s Risk Assessment and maintains the National Risk Register. Like any responsible organisation, we too maintain a comprehensive Risk Register, along with attendant mitigation procedures, and we had a long meeting reviewing our procedures for optimising this. Note that I say optimising rather than minimising. Risk (virtually synonymous for these purposes with ‘uncertainty’) is not necessarily bad, and the concept of a risk appetite implies this. Thus, although one clearly wishes to minimise these, Society implicitly accepts that there will be a certain number of road traffic accidents that are to be set against the wish to have the benefits that road travel affords. Not everything is quite so ‘symmetric’ however, as regulators will tolerate few or even no deaths induced by pharmaceutical drugs, however many person-years of life are extended through their therapeutic benefits.

I also attended an excellent meeting of the Foundation for Science and Technology on “Science advice and the management of risk in Government and Business”. The speakers were Sir John Beddington, Sir David Omand and Prof Dougal Goodman (wearing his Cranfield hat), with a moderation by Prof David Spiegelhalter. (The latter had co-edited one of the first books I had read on machine learning – it is well worth a read today and is now online). The presentations and discussions were broad, thoughtful and deep, and included present risks such as high-frequency trading, their likelihoods and impacts, methods for dealing with them (prevent, pursue, protect, prepare), the uses of Extreme Value Analysis, and evidence-tested rather than evidence-based policy. Altogether a really useful discussion, that also gave considerable comfort that such matters were being addressed by Government in a thoroughly professional manner.

I also attended and spoke at a meeting of the Theme Panels of the Biochemical Society, which was a very useful forum for setting out some of our activities, thoughts and plans, and for gathering some very valuable feedback from an important section of our community.

As someone with a somewhat philosophical streak, I was pleased to see a paper that I co-authored on the asymmetric relationship between ideas (hypotheses) and data (observations) reach 100 citations.

An interesting review indicates that more than half of the innovative pharmaceuticals introduced in the last decade came from small biotechs and the public sector science base.

We currently have a call for applications to our Council for appointments commencing in April 2011.  Specifically, we are looking for an academic in the area of animal sciences, and two industrialists with expertise in biotechnology, bioenergy or microbiology.  (Further details can be found on the BBSRC website and on the Cabinet Office’s Public appointment website.)  The closing date for applications is 3 December and interviews will be held on 14 January, 2011.

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