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Event Review: The Population Laboratory

17 September 2012
Appeared in BioNews 673

It is not often that you get the chance attend a seminar organised by an institution that is still under construction. Due to open in 2015, the building that will house the Francis Crick Institute currently comprises a rudimentary basement and ground floor, a handful of towering cranes and a swanky visitor centre showing what the building will end up looking like (a true lover's lane, if the virtual couples strolling through the mock-up atrium are anything to go by).

Nonetheless, the Crick - a consortium of six of the UK's leading scientific and academic organisations - has been out there since construction started last year in an effort to establish its name. It sponsors a youth football team, reaches out to local schools, and organises a range of seminars to engage the scientists that will eventually populate the institute.

As the Crick advertises itself as Europe's biggest biomedical institute to-be, I was a bit doubtful whether public health researchers and epidemiologists like me could find a new home there. The word 'biomedical' tends to imply labs-only, and as I only need a computer to run my models, you can put me in any old office (like my current windowless overcrowded grad student office).

However, the Crick is set to be an interdisciplinary institute, and luckily for me, number crunchers and model maniacs are to be included. The Population Laboratory (we couldn't completely get away from the lab bench image) set out to bring together participants from universities and funders to explore innovative areas of research that might find a home at the new institute.

It is an ambitious goal, seeing as the Crick is still three years away from opening, but by attracting speakers like Cancer Research UK's chief executive Dr Harpal Kumar, you really start to believe something very special is about to grow in London.

Dr Kumar emphasises that the basic sciences are still insufficient in bringing about the step changes we expected to see after projects like the Human Genome Project. Population science can help to identify new questions, and together, they are 'science on a scale we haven't seen before', he said.

As Dr Kumar and several population scientists from University College London point out, there is a wealth of data available, especially in genetics. With projects like ENCODE, UK Biobank and the prospect of affordable whole genome sequencing this multitude of data and data sources is only set to increase. Meanwhile, people who can work with complicated genetic data and, more importantly, interpret it are scarce.

Perhaps I am a bit biased towards the Crick - the potential of a fashionable new office is a strong lure - but with seminars like this I really start to believe in its potential.

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