The world we live in is changing more rapidly than ever before and we need to be able to respond to these changes. I want to look at these changes at two levels: first, and briefly, at the scale of the grand challenges we face – perhaps typified by the new sustainable development goals, and second at the level of my expertise and interest – that of a bioscientist and the bioeconomy.
The serious global challenges include: how to cope with three billion more mouths to feed by 2050; increasing demands on energy (while relying largely on the volatile and finite supplies of fossil fuel); and a population becoming increasingly elderly and infirm, all in the context of climate change. These problems, and more, compound and interact with one another. They are complex, hard to grapple with and comprehend, even for researchers actively involved in the topics.
Whilst these challenges have risen up the global agenda, bioscience has been undergoing a quiet but rapid evolution. Innovations in the lab mean that sequencing a whole human genome is rapid and costs no more than a season ticket for a premier league football club. Big data approaches to managing bioscience information mean new knowledge is being generated at a remarkable pace. Whole new areas of research, such as synthetic biology, offer the promise of finding innovative solutions the challenges we face such as creating new biofuels from waste and new chemicals to fight antibiotic resistance. I don’t think it’s too ambitious to say that bioscience is at a stage similar to that of computing perhaps 50 years ago: we are on the cusp of real transformational change.
Bioscience won’t provide all the answers to all the challenges we face, and the time needed to find solutions will differ according to the problems. Indeed in many areas the application of technologies developed for uses outside of bioscience, either alone or in combination with biology, will probably provide some of the most transformational changes. We need to harness a range of solutions to help us adapt and tackle this changing, and challenging, world; bioscientists need to work collaboratively with others inside and outside academia, and to be aware of the context of their work such that it can be focused usefully and sustainably.
Therefore it’s important that we embrace the opportunities that thinking of the bioeconomy holistically can offer. The bioeconomy in its broadest sense – most simply defined as ‘all economic activity derived from bio-based products and processes’ – embraces some of the most important sectors of the UK economy. Most notably one of the UK’s largest economic sectors – food and agriculture – is a fundamental component of the bioeconomy, but there are many other important industrial sectors which rely on underpinning basic bioscience for the development of their products and services.
Many other countries have developed a coherent bioeconomy strategy and made a compelling economic case for supporting this. The UK has all the basic ingredients in terms of scientific excellence, industrial absorptive capacity and SME potential and we need to capitalise on this, fostering a bioeconomy that will be an effective part of the solution to the ‘grand challenges’ we face locally, nationally and globally. How we work together more effectively as bioscientists, funders, industry, SMEs, government and the public to develop this agenda is critically important and I would invite you to be part of that discussion.
Professor Jackie Hunter Chief Executive of the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. She has over thirty years of experience in the bioscience research sector, working across academia and industry and playing a key role in innovative collaborations and partnerships.
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