15 May 2012
ByAppeared in BioNews 656
BBC News, Monday 30 April 2012
Presented by Stephen Sackur
Watching Stephen Sackur interview renowned scientist Sir John Sulston on HARDtalk, it comes as a surprise to discover that Sulston's current interests lie in human population control. This from the scientist whose pioneering work on the basic cell biology of the nematode worm led him to Stockholm in 2002, where he was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize along with his mentor Sydney Brenner and Robert Horvitz.
In the interview Sulston explains his transition from an intensive experimentalist obsessed by the minutiae of cell division to a socially and ethically aware thinker on how science impacts both society and the environment.
This is intriguing, as are his views on gene therapy, on the privatisation of biological datasets, and the publication of potentially harmful material (if used by the 'wrong people'), all of which are given a brief treatment in the interview.
To give a flavour, Sulston argues convincingly that scientific information - whether human gene sequences or the latest research on the H5N1 'bird flu' virus - should be made available to all, irrespective of politics or economics. He has been fervently against attempts to patent portions of the human genome for commercial gain; he was an instrumental figure in the public endeavour to sequence our genetic code, which competed directly with the private company Celera Genomics.
Sulston argues logically and makes all of his points clearly and succinctly. Though the interview is mostly serious in tone, Sulston does reveal a flair for whimsy. When reminded of the famous Bill Clinton line, 'We've uncovered the language with which God created life', spoken after the completion of the Human Genome Project, Sulston responded with his own quote from Sydney Brenner: 'DNA is the language with which we created God'.
Alas, at only twenty-five minutes, the interview is all too brief. Little time is given to any single topic before we are thrust on to the next by an enthusiastic interviewer. Enthusiastic, that is, about his next question rather than the answers Sulston provides. Still, fair play to Sackur: he comes across as well-informed and his attempts to inflame are infrequent and mild.
To sum up, the interview is worth watching for a brief introduction to some of the issues at the interface of science and society. It is a bonus that we get a small insight into the work of John Sulston, a fine scientist and a lucid thinker.