Synthetic biology reaffirmed as research priority

This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer

David Willetts showed how busy his department had been over Christmas with a speech last week at the Policy Exchange. As well as the headline announcement of an invitation for new kinds of postgraduate universities for SET to be set up and several other points (see Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) news story for brief summary), the Minister for Universities and Science also gave further indication of BIS’ growing commitment to synthetic biology.

Willetts is always quick to point to his commitment to the Haldane principle, but says that the Government must make some funding priorities. In December’s Strategy for UK Life Sciences and Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth, we read that the Technology Strategy Board (who’s Director of Innovation Programmes, Dr David Bott, will join us at the next Policy Lunchbox event*) have identified synthetic biology as “a key emerging technology with the potential to create a billion pound industry within the UK in the next decade”. As with graphene, Willetts is – perhaps justifiably under the straitened economic circumstances under which he cannot even offer any funding for his new universities plan – trying to pick economic winners. Like it or not, we must hope that having made such commitments, they prove to be successful.

Shell’s Dr Lionel Clarke is currently chairing a group producing a ‘synthetic biology roadmap’, aiming to show how the UK can become a leader in this field, and last week the Minister declared that he was setting up a ‘leadership council’ to decide how this can be delivered, once finalised in the Spring. It seems that part of the Government’s plans to ‘make the UK the best place in the world to do science’ (expect to see more of this mantra from BIS in 2012) is to establish synthetic biology as strategic area of strength. If successful, it could open up our bioenergy industry; bring new, patentable developments in healthcare and have important applications in agriculture. Let’s hope it gets enough of that all important capital funding to have a chance.

* Policy Lunchbox is fully booked, but if you have a question for David please email me at james.lush@biochemistry.org (the event will be held on 26 January).

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