12 July 2010
ByAppeared in BioNews 566
Before Dr Julian Huppert was elected MP for Cambridge in May this year, he was a computational biologist at Cambridge University studying the structure and function of DNA. Now, he's one of only two scientists with PhDs in parliament. BioNews quizzed him about science funding, synthetic biology and the shortage of scientists in politics.
Tell me more about your research into genetics?
I worked on the structure and function of DNA. People know DNA is a double helix, but it can have many other shapes too. I was interested in those structures and what effect they can have on biology and nanotechnology. In particular, we were working on how four-stranded structures called G-quadruplexes, which form from some DNA sequences that have lots of guanine, control gene regulation.
What do you think are the main barriers to further progress in genetics research?
I think part of the problem is working out the relevance of the work that's been done. I think there's lots of really nice research, but translating more of it into real benefits would be quite useful. By that I don't mean to argue that anything has to be impacts driven - I'm not a supporter of the impacts model - but I think we are at a stage where utility would be a great thing to come out of genetics research.
To make that happen, one of the issues is consistency of funding. We train a lot of people who then get very discouraged trying to go from PhD to postdoc or trying to get a second postdoc because of the vagaries of the funding system.
Do you think it's a problem that there are so few MPs with a science background?
It's definitely a problem. There's first an issue about the number of scientists. If you talk about scientists with PhDs, for example, there are now only two of us. One could also take a slightly broader definition and include people with any sort of science, technology, engineering and maths degree - you'd find a bigger number.
However, you don't have to have a science PhD to understand what's going on. If you take someone like Phil Willis, for example, he was an excellent Chairman of the Science and Technology Select Committee despite not being a scientist at all. But, unfortunately, there are not enough MPs who take a serious interest in science and too many who are possibly anti-science.
What do you think are the barriers to more scientists getting elected to parliament?
Some careers have more of an advantage for getting in. What we're seeing is an increase in career politicians who have been parliamentary researchers and moved on - most scientists don't do that. We're also seeing a big increase in people in the PR, marketing and media area, which has a simpler follow-through.
What do you hope to achieve for science now you're an MP?
In terms of what I hope to achieve for science: better stability of funding and more understanding from Government about the role of science.
But there's also using the scientific method, almost, to inform everything that we do. The ideas of trials, experimentation and proper evaluation are really important and apply in almost every field the Government is involved with - from climate change to transport and sentencing policy.
It's a decade since the human genome was decoded. What do you think has been the biggest step forwards in those ten years and what has been the greatest disappointment?
The disappointment, in many ways, is that it hasn't told us as much as we hoped it would. There was a huge amount of hype about decoding the human genome - that we would know everything about the causes of human disease. This hasn't come to pass - it's just not the case.
We also thought it was the exact sequence that matters, but we now know that CNVs (copy number variants) matter and that 'junk' DNA isn't junk. We also know that epigenetics plays a large role and levels of RNA very early on play a huge role in childhood. So I guess, in some sense, the message is that we've learned that so much else matters.
It was the budget last month and people are obviously concerned about cuts in science and education. How do you think we can keep Britain at the forefront of science and discovery given the need to save money?
I think it's a big problem. I'm certainly hoping that we will be able to defend the science budget as much as we can, because it's actually important. There are some budgets where it's easier to spend more some years and less other years. But I think what you need in science is continuity of funding so you attract people from other countries to come here and also keep talent inside the country and inside science.
I think synthetic biology is very interesting, but it hasn't really gone anywhere yet. The Craig Venter study was a brute force demonstration of something that, in principle, has been doable for some time. But I think there are some very interesting routes through synthetic biology - really nice toolkits being developed by groups in MIT and Cambridge for doing interesting things.
In terms of regulation - that's a classic answer to everything. We have to think through what we're regulating and why.
I think it will need to respond properly - the report raises some very interesting issues. I'm a bit more sceptical about how far individualised medicine will go, but think there are some cases when it's clearly a reasonable thing to do.
I know there are lots of discussions about the levels of regulation required, but I think we should be very wary about genetic exceptionalism. Genetic data are not, in many ways, categorically different from other forms of data. I mean clearly there are some aspects that are different in details, but we need to consider them as part of a whole.
The Human Genetics Commission has recently drawn up a framework of principles about direct-to-consumer genetic testing. What do you think about direct-to-consumer genetic tests - are they a problem? And should we regulate them?
Again, it's a very complicated area. I wouldn't argue for tight regulation on them because I think the public has a right to do things even if it may not be what we'd recommend. They should be tested for safety, honesty and accuracy - fraudulent testing is obviously not acceptable, of whatever form. But, otherwise, provided it's very, very clear what is happening, I'd go for a low regulatory approach.