Blueprint will divert biology funding

August 16, 2002

Some areas of biological science are set to lose funding following a shift in emphasis by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Over the next ten years, the council predicts that biology will move from being a "descriptive" science to becoming a more mathematical and "prescriptive" one.

Consequently, the council's remit will be closer to that of physical science. This will require significant investment over the next ten years in powerful computer systems to manage larger data sets and large facilities such as synchrotron radiation sources.

The council, which has an annual budget of about £220 million, has sent drafts of its ten-year strategy to interested parties. In the draft, the council says it wants to move from a "reductionist molecular view of biology to see molecules, cells and organisms as an integrated whole".

It plans to focus on three broad areas: sustainable agriculture, the healthy organism and science for bioindustry. Undercutting all of these will be an emphasis on integrative biology to understand basic biological processes as holistic systems. But the council warns: "Hard choices may have to be made and funding might be decreased in some areas in order to redirect effort to the higher priorities."

Paul Burrows, the council's head of science strategy, said: "The vision is setting out trends we are already seeing but tries to look further ahead."

He said that new priority areas would make it impossible to carry on funding the current range of research. "Like the Natural Environment Research Council, we're having to accept that there is a huge amount of science to be done but a finite amount of money. We will be focusing on appropriate areas while trying to maintain a broad biosciences base."

Matthew Freeman, a Cambridge biologist speaking on behalf of pressure group Save British Science, warned it was important to balance prescriptive biology with traditional, focused research to understand individual genes and molecules. "It is fashionable to imagine biology, like physics, turning into big science. But the 'omics' (proteomics, genomics) do not go all the way."

Swansea University's Paul Brain, who is chair of the heads of university biological sciences departments, said biology would benefit from more interfacing with the physical sciences. But he warned that biology students were increasingly less skilled in chemistry and mathematics and that the proposed change of emphasis by the research council would increase the remedial load on biological sciences departments.

4 newsThe Times HigherJaugust 16J2002 Growth industry: biological science will focus more funds on sustainable agriculture

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