I am really delighted that this week has seen the publication of the Forward Look for UK Bioscience, which sets out how pushing back the frontiers of biology can contribute to delivering a healthy, prosperous and sustainable future.

Development of the Forward Look for UK Bioscience has been led by BBSRC, in consultation with a wide range of key stakeholders and partners, including BBSRC’s legacy and new Councils and advisory panels. I am personally very grateful to all of those who have contributed and excited that we have a new framing upon which BBSRC, within UK Research and Innovation, will build its strategic delivery plan. The latter, under development now, will set out in more detail the actions we will take to support and deliver elements of the Forward Look and contribute to UK Research and Innovation’s strategic prospectus.

Professor Melanie Welham and members of BBSRC Council.
Professor Melanie Welham and members of BBSRC Council. Copyright: BBSRC

So, what is different? First, there is a real focus on advancing the frontiers of bioscience discovery, underpinned by two themes; understanding the rules of life and transformative technologies. I had heard there was a perception in the wider bioscience community that BBSRC no longer supported what we might term ‘discovery’ or ‘curiosity-driven’ research. This has never been the case, in fact, quite the opposite, supporting research addressing fundamental questions in biology is part of BBSRC’s ‘DNA’. It is vital for the vibrancy of bioscience as a discipline, is often where the ground-breaking interdisciplinary research evolves, and provides much of the understanding and ideas that underpin research which has a more strategic focus.

The challenges facing society, where bioscience has a key role to play in delivering new solutions, are long-term and so continue to feature in the Forward Look, yet they are ‘refreshed’. Bioscience will play a vital role in advances to support sustainable agriculture and food, as it will in moving towards a more integrated understanding of health. And there is so much potential for bioscience to contribute to the development of renewable resources, linked to clean growth and the bioeconomy more broadly.

Of course, whether addressing a fundamental biological question, such as how organ size is regulated, or tackling a particular aspect of a societal challenge, such as combatting antimicrobial resistance, strong foundations are required. The Forward Look sets out key priorities for supporting the broad range of people and talent and infrastructures needed to create and sustain a vibrant ecosystem, along with approaches to foster collaboration, partnerships and knowledge exchange. As always, we welcome feedback from the community, so please, share your thoughts.

Often when we look forward, we have much to learn from the past. In relation to this, I spent an interesting and thought-provoking Friday evening recently celebrating the opening of the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath (where I am a visiting Professor). The Centre seeks to answer fundamental questions about evolution, as well as being a hub for evolution education and public communication. Understanding evolution is arguably key to ‘understanding the rules of life’ and I could see many opportunities for this type of knowledge to inform breeding strategies for agriculturally important crops and animals. Alice Roberts brought this to life very eloquently in her Public Lecture, which followed the opening of the Milner Centre. From case studies on the domestication of dogs, cattle and horses, it is clear that the convergence of palaeontology, archaeology and genomics is delivering new understanding of how past human : natural world interactions have shaped our world today and the potential this understanding has to help with future challenges. Alice will be delivering the Royal Institution Christmas lectures this year (supported in part by BBSRC), so I think we will all be in for a real treat!

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