April 18, 2013 by IPAlchemist
On 14th March 2013 the IP Alchemist attended a panel discussion hosted by the Royal Society of Chemistry, entitled “Stop Horsing Around with Our Food”; the goal being to “tease out the issues to be tackled” in the wake of the recent horsemeat scandal and the progressively decreasing amounts of resources made available for food sampling and analysis.
The event took the form of a brief talk from each panellist followed by a question-and-answer session. The panel of industry experts consisted of:
- Dr Derek Craston, UK Government Chemist, Chief Scientific Officer at LGC and chair of the panel.
- Gerald Heddell, Director of Inspection, Enforcement and Standards Division at the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
- Dr Mark Woolfe, member of the RSC’s Analytical Methods Committee and formerly of the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
- Liz Moran, President of the Association of Public Analysts.
Dr Craston began proceedings by indicating that any food analysis or testing only usually takes place in relation to known issues, after a problem had been brought to light. Current resources are insufficient to test in areas where no issue has been identified.
Dr Woolfe stated that he was “not that surprised” that food adulteration had taken place and that he was only surprised by the scale of the issue. He said that the food chain had become longer, because price pressure from supermarkets led suppliers to source food production from abroad. He added that any supply chain should be as short as possible to avoid any untoward contamination.
Gerald Heddell looked at parallels with regulation of medical products. He stated that the answer cannot lie solely in testing but requires regulation of the supply chain: a poorly-regulated supply chain could not be compensated for by any amount of testing or analysis. He reported that 60% of adults have changed their shopping habits in the wake of the scandal, indicative of a collapse of confidence in the sector as a whole.
Liz Moran, of the Association of Public Analysts, painted a rather bleak picture of the decline of the UK food analysis system which is currently “in the eye of the storm” with 30% of the UK’s food testing laboratories having closed over the last few years resulting in a significant loss of expertise. She went on to argue that labs need to be able to react quickly to problems that present themselves and help the FSA. This issue was not routinely tested for before, but now labs were working round the clock testing beef for equine and porcine DNA. She stated that laboratories must be prepared for the next issue that presents itself and that regulation via paperwork would be insufficient due to possibility of forgery.
The floor was then opened to questions and contributions. Dr Chris Smart of Leatherhead Foods defended the industry and argued that food safety and traceability were taken very seriously. He pointed out that when fraud happens (of which there have been a number – orange juice, baby formula, olive oil) it can be hard to spot when it first happens, emphasising the importance of the integrity of the chain. When a question was raised regarding the acceptability of hiding cheap ingredients in processed food, he pointed out that one cannot simply “hide” ingredients and that doing so was illegal. He argued that there was nothing wrong with convenience food and that such products addressed a consumer demand. He pointed out that consumers have an expectation that products have good shelf life, but taking out emulsifiers, salt, and other ingredients can compromise this.
On the question as to whether cheaper and faster testing was being developed, Dr Woolfe outlined the immense number of issues surrounding food analysis, indicating for example that the presence of methanol in drinks is easy enough to detect whereas determining the geographic origin of meat is far more challenging.
One enquiry which aroused much interest from the panel was the question of how sensitive and specific the tests for horse meat were. Liz Moran immediately indicated that the last thing any lab would want to do is report a false positive result, and indeed that no lab would declare anything without undertaking repeat measurements. She went on to indicate that ELISA (Enzyme-Linked Immuno Sorbent Assay) tests are sensitive to 1% and PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) testing is sensitive to just 0.01 %, posing a further question as to what exactly constitutes an acceptable limit, pointing out that detection of equine DNA is not the same thing as establishing that the meat is horse meat as such.
Mark Woolfe pointed out that surveys and investigation come from intelligence – often from within the food industry itself, while Gerald Heddell re-iterated that testing cannot rule out all risk and that supply chain management is also key.
Ms Moran understandably criticised cuts to testing labs. When questioned, she explained that there have been cuts to DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) but that local authorities also have responsibility for testing. The number of samples taken by local authorities has been declining in recent years and some have reported no testing at all to the FSA. Naturally these cuts were implicated in the fact that the horsemeat problem did not first come to light in the UK.
The IP Alchemist very much enjoyed this evening and thanks the RSC for putting it on in a very short timescale. He did however feel that each of the speakers pretty much said what you might have them to say, given their current or previous affiliation, and pretty much the same went for the audience contributions (where their loyalties were stated). Cuts were blamed where expected, and the importance of consumer choice and demand were also emphasised by precisely those who would be expected as well.
The IP Alchemist would like to thank his Twitter interlocutors, in particular @RSC_Comms, @chemical_ian, @melancholysci, and @chiara_ceci for enlivening the evening, and for creating a record on which this blog post could be based. The hashtag used for the event was #stophorsingaround. He is also enormously thankful to Fergus Tyrrell for assisting with the first draft of this report.
The event was webcast live, and there is a promise that the recording will be made available, but as at the posting time this has not yet occurred.
April 7, 2013 by IPAlchemist
Last night I went to see a performance at the King’s Head Theatre of Quasimodo, a musical by Lionel Bart (of Oliver! fame), not quite finished and never performed before this run. As might be expected from the title, the story is based on Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. One is always nervous about revived or newly discovered pieces – there is often a reason for their neglect – but this was great. Fantastic hummable tunes and emotion-stirring harmonies. The musical was revived and directed by my friend Robert Chevara and had an amazing cast – every single one gave an astonishingly good performance, with first-class singing, acting, and movement. It is not on for much longer, so do get to see it if you can.
There was a lot for the lover of language as well.
First, the viewer is informed that Quasimodo is named for Quasimodo Sunday, otherwise known as Low Sunday, which, as luck would have it, is actually today. It is the Sunday after Easter and the name come from the introit for the day: Quasi modo geniti infantes “as newborn babes” (1 Pet. ii:2). According to the story, Quasimodo was found as an abandoned infant on that day, and thusly named.
The other thing is that the musical contains what could just possibly be my favourite rhyming couplet. Introducing Esmeralda to the bells of Notre Dame, Quasimodo sings the lines:
They cannot wait
It is probably helped by the fact that the word was delivered perfectly , with a knowing pause to signify to the audience that the performer knew the absurdity of this character delivering such an improbable word – absolutely glorious. (Here I am getting annoyed that spellchecker does not like “tintinnabulate”.)
So dear readers, this got me thinking. An early blogpost of the IPAlchemist invited submission of favourite words. We haev probably gone as far as we can with that for the time being. Now my question is – what is your favourite rhyming couplet? From any work, including one that you made up yourself. In honour of Quasimodo I will invite responses during Eastertide. So I will do a roundup around Pentecost.
Submit by comment, Twitter or email. Over to you!
April 4, 2013 by IPAlchemist
Over the last year or so, I have been involved in a number of projects related to the public perception and understanding of chemistry, and also showing to current or aspiring chemists what possible careers are available for them, and what chemistry-related jobs might look like.
On Twitter, we have had #RealTimeChem (see @RealTimeChem, organised by @DrGalactic, whose blog is on my blogroll). The next event is going to be a week, not just a day, beginning on 22 April, so do all look out for that. I shall be at BIO in Chicago that week, so I am hoping to tweet and blog from there. It is my first time attending the BIO convention, so I am very excited about it.
The other week I was also thrilled to be added to @JessTheChemist ‘s family tree of tweeting chemists (where everyone is connected via a current or former supervisor). Her blog is on my blogroll, and the post with the family tree is here.
On the blogosphere, See Arr Oh hosted a Chem Coach Carnival on his blog Just Like Cooking, also on my Blogroll, last October, which I participated in here.
In a perhaps similar vein, the Royal Society of Chemistry has every month in RSC News, which accompanies Chemistry World, the magazine for RSC members, a profile of a chemist. And I am in the April edition, which you can find here (the profile is on page 7) or on the RSC Blog The Reaction here.
As it happens, there has been a bit of an intellectual property theme going on in the RSC News profiles recently, because just a few months ago the towering IP barrister Michael Edenborough QC was likewise featured – you can see his profile here. I actually only found out quite recently that his background was quite so strongly chemical – barristers practise in a wider range of technical and legal fields than patent attorneys so have a diverse array of backgrounds.
I hope that this little array may help any chemists out there who are considering what direction their career may next take.
March 18, 2013 by IPAlchemist
…or The Sound of Silence
I have not explained, dear readers, why I have been out of commission for such a long time. I did not inform you, as I should have done, that I re-joined the IPKat weblog as a permanent member earlier in the year. So such blogging activity as I have undertaken has been there. I won’t post here when I post things to the IPKat, but I will from time to time update “Publications” with my IPKat pieces.
I do have a couple of non-IP related things to post about, so do not give up hope here. I shall still be blogging from time to time. I won’t spoil the surprise by saying what they are.
January 18, 2013 by IPAlchemist
It is now over a month since Genesis, the UK’s flagship life science and healthcare networking conference. I had always intended blogging about it – I was very excited to attend the whole event for the first time, because in previous years the most that I managed was to pop in for a little while, or attend the dinner. The problem is that, after the event was over, nothing really came into my mind that I wanted to say. So the blog piece got put off, until now, at the one-month stage, I feel I really need to write it, whatever.
Normally when I go to an event, I come away with something that I want to say, but on this occasion it didn’t really happen. It is not that I did not enjoy the event – I enjoyed it immensely. I met many interesting people for the first time, as well as running into various One Nucleus stalwarts that it was a pleasure to see again. There were of course many patent attorneys in attendance (although with some notable and noticeable absences), and it is rarely disappointing to meet a patent attorney. There were many interesting and stimulating discussions, as well as the formal presentations.
In particular I attended the afternoon session on Antibody-Based Therapeutics which yielded many fascinating brief stories (although one, which I feel I should not name, was basically “We have great idea but it is so early stage we can’t tell you what it is yet. It might not work – we don’t know yet, but if it does it will be amazing”).
In the morning I attended a case study on the deal between Astex, Cancer Research Technology and The Institute of Cancer Research relating, of course, to an anticancer compound. This revealed fascinating insights into how such complex deals come into existence and what drives the terms and the choice of partner.
I also attended the morning plenary session and the afternoon plenary debate. And perhaps that is the issue. Annual events such as Genesis prompt a certain amount of navel gazing. The industry as a whole, in its widest sense including service providers and academia as well as pharmaceutical and biotech companies of whatever type, considers “are we in good shape”? And now seems a particularly troubling time to ask this question, because, as the plenary debate made clear, one can equally argue for optimism pointing to all sorts of wonderful positive signs, as for pessimism pointing to all the harbingers of doom. And I wonder whether it might not be better if the answer was clearly negative, because then we could agree that there is a problem and do something about it: I feel maybe that the lack of consensus is itself the reason for the feeling of unease.
I will end on a harbinger of optimism, a fellow blogger that I have added to my blogroll, Lucy Robertshaw. Lucy was a model of optimism and enterprise, having moved from the UK to Sweden to set up her own consultancy company. She also cleverly worked out that if you get the right photo, you can do quite a short post! That was my APAA strategy, but foolishly I took no snaps at Genesis.
January 16, 2013 by IPAlchemist
Can we really be two weeks into the New Year already? I intended to have a quiet December relatively free from social media activity, but that was supposed to be followed by an active January. It has not quite panned out that way. I have joined the IPKat as a permanent member, so my IP-blogging will mostly be done there. That leaves plenty of other things to write about here – it is, as usual, just a question of finding the time.
On 10 January (nearly a week ago now!) I attended a fascinating event, again at the Royal Society of Chemistry, but this time in association with the British Society of Perfumers, and also supported by IFRA (the fragrance trade body) and basenotes (a website for fragrance enthusiasts). The format was not actually that clear from the advance information, but I attended because I have a long-standing interest in the chemistry of fragrance. Like many things, fragrance is underpinned by a lot of chemistry (a fact that perhaps escapes many people), and in a previous incarnation I used to do some patent work in this space.
When I turned up, the event, entitled Making Sense of Scents, turned out to be a kind of question time, with pre-submitted questions, and further and follow-up questions from the audience, being put to a fabulous panel of experts, namely:
John Bailey, current President of the British Society of Perfumers
Penny Williams, Perfumer and consultant, Orchadia
Grant Osborne, Founder, basenotes
Lisa Hipgrave, Director, IFRA
Ruth Mastenbroek, Perfumer, Ruth Mastenbroek (eponymous niche perfumery)
Will Andrews, Fragrance Scientist, P&G Prestige
I didn’t keep detailed notes, which is why I should have written my blog post a lot sooner. But several points stuck in my mind.
When asked whether perfumery is an art or a science, the panel responded unanimously and in unison: “Both”. Of course that is so. Even chemistry is an art as well as a science, so of course perfumery is also. It was noted that there are “no young Master Perfumers”, and that the acquisition of the necessary knowledge set takes a long time.
I was happy to see it acknowledged that perfumery is a branch of the chemical industry, without equivocation. That means that it has not been untouched by the increasing regulatory pressures applied to chemicals generally. As I understand from what was said, the use of certain fragrance compounds has been banned, while others are permitted only at specified concentrations, depending upon the nature of the final product. Of particular recent concern is apparently the development of allergies to particular fragrance compounds, which is a two stage process – initial sensitisation, requiring exposure to a sensitising dose, after which the allergy can be triggered by the compound at a much lower level. IFRA in particular hope that this issue can be addressed by ensuring that the sensitising dose is never reached. Friends of the IP Alchemist will know my frustration over chemophobia, where “chemical” equals “something toxic” while “natural” equals “safe”, and will therefore not be surprised that I was reassured to note that it was acknowledged that certain flower oils (i.e. “natural” essential oils) are amongst those associated with allergic responses. Of course. I do not quibble at all with sensible regulations that in widely distributed products only compounds with appropriate safety profiles are used. But I do worry that a safety agenda is being driven by an ill-informed constituency, with poor understanding of risk, and fuelled by chemophobia.
I enjoyed seeing the breadth of the fragrance industry, from the ultra-niche perfumer, to the fragrances that are put in household products such as cosmetics and cleaning products. The full breadth was represented on the panel, and their perspectives did not, so far as I could see, differ much on most of the key questions.
The audience, perhaps surprisingly, could field only one person willing to identify themselves as a “perfumista”. The problem for such people apparently is that many fragrances are offered only in larger quantities than a collector wants – someone who wears only one fragrance may wish to buy 100ml bottles, but the person with a collection of 100 fragrances will want smaller unit sizes.
There was an interesting opening question as to why smell is so evocative. Apparently that sense, unlike the others, feeds directly into the limbic system, a more primitive part of the brain than that responsible for the other senses. This was news to me, and makes a lot of sense (boom boom).
There was an interesting discussion around marketing – surely more central to the fragrance industry than almost any other. In particular because of the rise of the internet and social media, it becomes possible to have a highly niche brand, or, indeed, an array of ultra niche brands. So some brands may choose to position themselves as actually unattractive to a large section of consumers in order to be more attractive to their very small target market (who don’t want other people to be wearing their fragrance). Thus, although mass market fragrances continue (and the even larger market of consumer items where the fragrance is incidental also thrives, despite those like the IP Alchemist and at least one other audience member who dislike such incidental smells), there is a burgeoning sector of niche scent. Grant Osborne referred to Etat Libre d’Orange as a fragrance house whose website proclaims:
fragrance has been liberated from the traditional restrictions of the perfume industry, where even the most talented noses are subjected to the expectations of brands and are forced to conform to the demands of the marketplace.
and whose perfumes are given names than many people might find unattractive or even offensive.
There was a drinks mixer after the panel session, where I had the delight to meet another past president of the BSP, David Ruskin, as well as two of the panellists Grant Osborne and Ruth Mastenbroek. Ruth, pleasingly, is like me a chemistry graduate of Oxford University who also spent time in Japan – of course the best start to any career.
I hope to attend and report back on further perfumery related events in due course. This should be a bumper year as the BSP is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013.
December 1, 2012 by IPAlchemist
I posted a couple of weeks ago about my thoughts about how best a visitor to Japan might best spend limited time. This was inspired by Jess the Chemist. She has sent links to some lovely pictures both urban and leafy, so I thought I would post a link. Here it is.
Natsukashii is an adjective describing nostalgic feelings. People usually use it in relation to Japan, because the word is Japanese.
Stuck in London, I can’t photograph architecture or foliage, so here are some cats. Everyone loves cats.
I expect you will prefer Jess’s pictures.
Category Uncategorized | Tags:
November 30, 2012 by IPAlchemist
How is it nearly two weeks since my last post? I intended to have a period of respite following multiple postings at APAA, but was still vaguely intending an approximate one-a-week rate. But nearly two have slipped by. Never mind – I can remedy the situation immediately. So I shall.
Today I am going to have a rant. Sorry – polemical piece designed to provoke thought and discussion. No – I was right first time – rant. Everyone likes a rant. I think this will be my first blog rant. And the subject is one of my promised three – language.
A couple of weeks ago I saw a comment on a blog where a lawyer said that he had “lateraled” into his current position. That’s right – “lateral” as a verb. I don’t know how one should spell it – since it should not be written anyway, the “one l or two” question should never have arisen. So, for the sake of this piece, I shall use one l.
This is not the first time that I have seen an adjective used as a verb. It is, I regret to say, more often observed in US usage, although (as we shall see later in this post) the most egregious example that I have encountered was in the UK. The first time I observed the phenomenon was over a decade ago in an advertisement on the New York Subway that informed its readers that a certain printer “compatibles” with a range of popular computers.
In both these cases, a perfectly innocent adjective has been minding its own business and has then been dragged, kicking and screaming, into service as a verb. This cannot be. In the English language we have parts of speech, and they have to be respected. I fully concede that a language need not do this, and there is no intrinsic requirement in language to distinguish between an adjective and a verb. The Japanese language is quite happy, for example, to press a whole range of words into service, with only minor manipulation, as nouns, verbs and adjectives. And another type of adjective in Japanese displays verb-like qualities such as tense. But this is English we are talking about. It simply will not do to flagrantly disregard the basic categorisations of words. While I can just about accept the shift of category from adjective to noun, although sometimes with regret, the leap to a verb is a shift too far.
I said that this usage was not restricted to the US. A few years ago, I was talking to a friend about his company taking over a contract to provide certain public services. I asked what would happen to the employees of the existing provider. “Oh,” he said, “we just TUPE them over.” (For those of you who may not be familiar, “TUPE” stands for “Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations”, and refers to the rules protecting employment rights in such situations where one company takes over the provision of services from another.) “TUPE them over?” I shrieked, wincing. “You are using an acronym as a verb! Can’t you hear it scream? Can’t you hear its pain as you mutilate it in your Procrustean bed of a sentence?” (He couldn’t.) “Everyone says it,” he justified. As if that forgives flagrant disregard of all linguistic sensibilities. (It doesn’t.)
So here I stand, founder member of the Call the Rescue Adjectives in Pain. Post a comment if you share my pain and wince when you hear a word used as an incorrect part of speech.
And next time – watch out for news of the Society to Salvage the Subjunctive!
November 17, 2012 by IPAlchemist
Dr Jess, known on Twitter as @JessTheChemist, is off to Japan to go to a conference in Kyoto, and has asked for recommendations while there. It is not the first time that I have been asked for such suggestions, as I lived in Tokyo for two years 1996-1998, and have been back most years since 2001, so it seemed worth putting my thoughts on a blog post so that they are there for anyone else too. So here goes.
There is too much to see in Kyoto. I have only seen a tiny fraction – for example, I have never visited the old Imperial Palace.
Things I have seen and would recommend (which I remember as “the one with…”) are as follows:
This is one of the most famous temples and is considered a “must see”. Avoid the young people offering to guide you around in return for practising their English – they are annoying and know nothing about the place.
Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Temple)
The one with the gold-covered temple pavilion, and is also generally considered a “must see”.
Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Temple)
The one with the frustroconical pile of sand. (Confusingly, there is no silver temple pavilion in it). Also features high on the tourist agenda.
The one with 1001 buddha statues which was one of my favourite Kyoto sights.
Called a castle, but actually it was a palace for the Shogun. Civil architecture a welcome relief from all the temples.
The one with the garden with 15 stones and a wall with a funny stain. (If you don’t go here, try to go to another Zen stone garden – you should probably try to take in one).
Worth visiting if you are in the area (which is likely since it is close to Kyoto station). It has a huge impressive main hall.
The one with the dragon on the roof and the mediaeval sauna. This is a great place – a temple in a huge temple complex. I think it is not on the general tourist circuit, and, at least when I went, was very much less busy than anywhere else I ever went to. Description here.
I wouldn’t bother with the Heian Shrine, which is modern and dull. This is my only anti-recommendation.
I treasure two shopping experiences as well.
Jusanya, which sells boxwood combs and is situated in a lovely market (location described here.)
Aritsugu, which sells Japanese kitchen knives, a work of art in themselves. Also in a nice market (location described here.)
If you never saw anything at all in Kyoto, but instead got on the train and spent the whole time in Nara, I don’t think you would have made a bad decision.
The usual tour includes Nara park (with the deer, to which you can feed rice crackers that they sell there) and Todai-ji – the one with the giant Buddha statue. Both of which are lovely.
For me, the real treasure is Horyu-ji, which is my favourite temple in Japan. It claims to be the oldest wooden structure in the world. The atmosphere there is quite magical. If I could see only one thing in Japan again, this would be it.
But also very highly recommended is the Toshodai-ji, in a different part of Nara, and also quite lovely. It recently emerged from a long period of refurbishment, I am told.
There is nothing old in Tokyo, basically, so if you want to see traditional Japanese stuff, then you probably need to do a day trip. My recommendation would be Nikko, but Kamakura is also popular. If you stay within Tokyo itself, then Asakusa has a temple which compares reasonably favourably with those in other parts of Japan. (Any Tokyo apologists reading this – sorry, but you know it’s true!)
If I could do only one thing in Tokyo, it would be to have lunch or dinner in the restaurant Ukai Toriyama (website here.) It is a way out of central Tokyo, and you have to take the Chuo line out to Takao-san, and then a minibus supplied by the restaurant, but it is doable if you seek guidance, for example from your hotel (or just the restaurant website). The journey take about an hour.
I will now get down to serious heresy. People talk about the different parts of Tokyo having different characters, but I find that many of the main department stores, for example, repeat all over central Tokyo, and so rather than fight your way to Ginza or Nihonbashi, you might as well look out the Mitsukoshi or Takashimaya that is closest.
On the subject of department stores, most have restaurant floors, usually near the top, and these are rarely a bad place to look out to eat. You get a very large selection of eating possibilities in a small space, and usually with pictures or models that will give a good idea of what the food is likely to be.
If you get a clear day, find a tall building with public access and admire the view. These used to be in short supply (and I used to recommend tea or cocktails in the lobby bar at the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku – I swear I did this before it appeared in Lost in Translation) but so many tall buildings have sprung up since my time that it is hard to avoid finding one. So there seems very little point in going to Tokyo Tower any more.
If you fancy seeing Mount Fuji from Tokyo, which can be done especially in winter, the best time is first thing in the morning. Daytime or evening it usually gets hazy. You don’t need a particularly tall building (I used to see it from 5th floor at Tokyo Institute of Technology), but you do need uninterrupted view in the right direction, and this can now be hard to find.
I expect more thoughts will come to me over time, in which case I will add them.
November 15, 2012 by IPAlchemist
Last night I went to the RSC for another of the series of events on chemistry policy, following the two last month that I wrote about on this blog. This time, the subject was “Synthetic Biology: challenges and opportunities for the UK”.
It was another great event, but quite different from the previous ones. It was not about an individual project, unlike previously where each lecture had focused on a particular molecule (one pharmaceutical and one agrochemical). And the format was quite different too – a largish panel each spoke for about 5 minutes, and then there were a series of questions from the floor.
I was very gratified that on this occasion Twitter was encouraged, and we were provided with a hashtag #synbio2012. (Usually, in the Chemistry Centre, we are told to turn off our mobile phones because they interfere with the sound recording equipment). If you want a blow-by-blow account of the event, a search on that hashtag should work well (for a while) as there were a number of professional reporters and writers present who are highly skilled in the art of real-time tweeting (unlike your humble servant).
The event was technologically ambitious, being live-webcast, and having a live video link with a second audience at the University of Bristol. This impressive setup only failed slightly sometimes when there was a strong echo from the Bristol venue.
The impressive chairman was Dr Ehsan Masood – Editor, Research Fortnight.
Ehsan is a science writer, journalist and broadcaster. Since 2009 he has been Editor of Research Fortnight and also teaches a course in international science policy at Imperial College London. As well as writing for Prospect magazine, The Times, Guardian and Le Monde, he writes and presents programmes for BBC Radio.
The panel in London consisted of:
Dr Lionel Clarke – Chairman, UK Synthetic Biology Roadmap Coordination Group
Lionel chairs a group of independent experts who have set out A Synthetic Biology Roadmap for the UK. Its recommendations include investing in multidisciplinary centres, an annual forum, and funding competitions to support the development of novel applications. It emphasises responsible research to support the UK taking an internationally leading role. Dr Clarke joined Shell in 1981 and has been responsible for planning and delivering strategic research programmes there for more than ten years.
Professor Robert Edwards – University of York and Chief Scientist, Food and Environment Research Agency
Professor Edwards is the Chief Scientist for FERA and a Chair in Crop Protection in the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (University of York). His research focuses on countering herbicide resistance in weeds, wheat biotechnology and biorefining. His group have discovered two new classes of plant glutathione transferases and identified their roles in soy, wheat and maize herbicide metabolism.
Daisy Ginsberg – Synthetic biology writer and commentator
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg is a designer, artist and writer, interrogating science, technology and new roles for design in a biotech future. As Design Fellow on Synthetic Aesthetics, an NSF/EPSRC-funded project at Stanford University and the University of Edinburgh, she is curating an international programme researching synthetic biology, art and design, investigating how we might ‘design nature’.
Helena Paul – Co-director, Econexus
Helena is a co-director of EcoNexus, an organisation analysing developments in science and technology and their impacts on environment and society. She is also involved in the international negotiations of the UN Conventions on Biological Diversity and Climate Change. Dr Paul is currently monitoring UK research on synthetic biology, including consultation with the public and the conduct of scientists in connection with scientific uncertainty.
Described as the “chair” in Bristol, but in the event acting more like a further panelist (which was welcome, as he spoke very well indeed) was Professor Dek Woolfson – University of Bristol
Dek has been a Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Bristol since 2005. His research group’s focus is the prediction and design of protein folds and their application in bionanotechnology and synthetic biology. In 2011 Professor Woolfson won the RSC Protein and Peptide Science group’s Medimmune Protein and Peptide Science award, which is awarded in recognition of excellence in any area of protein and peptide science.
It will probably be somewhat apparent from the biographies that all except Helena pretty much assumed that synthetic biology was A GOOD THING. Their discourse focused on whether it would achieve what was hoped of it, whether it had been over-hyped, and how to foster public engagement and acceptance. They were referring to (and buoyed up by) George Osborne’s speech from last week, on importance of synthetic biology to the UK, as for example reported in The Guardian.
Helena was a lone voice advocating the precautionary principle. While the others accepted that there was a serious public engagement issue to avoid a repeat of GM crops being labelled “Frankenfoods”, none of them to my mind seriously engaged with people who genuinely consider that with biological developments we need to set the bar of confidence that no harm can possibly result at a very high level indeed. It seemed as though Helena and the others were simply taking part in parallel events that were not interacting with each other.
To be clear, I do not agree with the precautionary principle being applied to developments in synthetic biology, but neither do I think that we can just carry on talking as though its proponents are not in the room. So I used my question to ask:
Is there any way to bridge gap between proponents of precautionary principle and those who do not espouse it?
Even this did not really result in what I would regard as real engagement. There was some discussion of “what would have happened if the precautionary principle had been applied to motorised transport”, which is a good point, but, as Helena did point out, ultimately irrelevant as people who advocate the precautionary principle consider that there is an issue with organisms (which are replicating) that render them fundamentally different, and in need of a far, far higher level of regulatory caution than any other technology.
My own “what if”, although equally irrelevant ultimately, is the story of CFCs. They were brought in to replace the toxic and dangerous refrigerants that were used in domestic fridges, but turned out, completely unexpectedly, to harm the ozone layer. But this was not an irreversible effect, and it is in principle possible to stop using them and return to something approximating to the status quo ante.
Having squandered my question on this issue, I did not get a chance to talk about the IP issues, although I did tweet a little on the subject. A sensible question was asked about the effect and role of IP on synthetic biology by Dylan Williams (@vitamindyl), but it did not really result in very informative answers, and I regret that I was not able to dive in.
A particularly regrettable response was from Helena, who said that she worried that patents would be used by companies to tie up the technology and hide what they were doing. Of course fundamental to the concept of patenting is disclosure, and so use of the patent system will actually help, not hinder, dissemination of the technology and publication of what is being done.
There was some talk that the “biobricks” might be open source. This may or may not turn out to be true – it might happen, but there would be no way to ensure that it happened universally.
My expectation is that the basic rules of patenting – an invention must be new and involve an inventive step to be patentable, plus the requirements of disclosure and to be not contrary to morality, will turn out to be quite sufficient to deal with the issues presented by synthetic biology, and I do not see that the discipline presents any special new issues that would require dealing with in a different way. I certainly don’t expect that it will need its own separate legal framework. How then companies choose to use IP Law – in a collaborative way or in a proprietary way – or, as is most likely, as a mixture of the two – remains to be seen. But I am confident that the patent system will provide within itself the necessary flexibility to underpin whatever approaches are adopted.
A final observation. It is curious that no-one actually defined what they meant by “synthetic biology”. While I heard “it is not genetic engineering”, and I heard various qualities attributed to it, no-one actually said what they considered the term to encompass. Since the semantic meaning of the term is rather vague, if we are going to discuss issues like what will it do and how should it be regulated, I think we do need precision about the scope of the terminology. I slightly formed the impression, although I could well be mistaken, that not all the panelists and question askers were assuming the same meaning.
Final verdict – a fascinating evening and I look forward to another.