Cash crunch hits 'voice of biology'

April 11, 2003

The new UK Biosciences Federation is struggling to find sufficient money to support its long-term aim of becoming the definitive voice for biology.

The federation, which is not due to launch officially until September, already has 60,000 members.

But its president, Colin Blakemore, told The THES that although a lot of societies had made generous one-off donations to get the federation going, there was no long-term money to employ key staff such as a chief executive.

"We don't want to go to industry for core funding as we don't want to be seen to be in the pocket of the bio-industry," he said.

Discussions about the need for a federation began more than four years ago, but it has only recently come to fruition.

Professor Blakemore said he hoped the federation would achieve a status comparable to that of the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Physics, providing the government with one key organisation to approach for advice on bioscience issues.

Biology has traditionally been a much more fragmented sector than other hard sciences. It has had a large number of societies, each with a focus on a particular specialism. Professor Blakemore said this had diluted the influence of the biosciences.

He said: "One of the complaints about biology is that it hasn't had a single voice even though many issues - including genetic modification, foot-and-mouth disease and MMR [the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine] - are essentially about biology."

The UK Life Sciences Committee, which represents 30,000 scientists, has agreed to be absorbed into the federation.

But the Institute of Biology, which has traditionally marketed itself as the voice of biology, will still exist as an independent organisation.

"It took the UKLSC's success to demonstrate that there was room for a broader organisation than the IOB. The IOB is less qualified as it is less orientated to the basic biological sciences," Professor Blakemore said.

Some members are defecting from the IOB and joining the federation, which has agreed to compensate the organisation financially for such losses.

The Biosciences Federation has yet to finalise its agenda, but it is keen to introduce working parties on key issues such as bio-defence. It will also look at education in the biosciences and issues surrounding the use of animals in research.

In addition, Professor Blakemore wants the federation to provide a horizon-scanning role, alerting the government to possible future problems.

"I want us to act as antennae for issues that might arise," he said.

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