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Radio Review: The Life Scientific - Dr Ewan Birney

24 June 2013
Appeared in BioNews 710

The Life Scientific: Dr Ewan Birney

BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 11 June 2013

Presented by Professor Jim Al-Khalili

'The Life Scientific: Professor Dame Linda Partridge', BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 28 May 2013

Big data, open science, and DNA a-go-go; last week's broadcast of The Life Scientific looked to have it all.

I'm halfway through a PhD that makes heavy use of DNA sequencing technologies. These are ingenious pieces of kit enhanced by some very crafty computer programs to make sense of a mind-boggling mountain of data.

So an interview with Dr Ewan Birney – associate director of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), a key member of the team that sequenced the human genome, and general big cheese in the genomics world – sounded right up my street.

I don't listen to the radio much, so I hadn't heard of the show before, but the format looked sound. The interviewer, physicist and science public engagement enthusiast Professor Jim Al-Khalili, chats with a notable scientist, interspersed with 'This Is Your Life' style soundbites from past colleagues.

So we have two very respected scientists, with interesting things to say (as I already knew, from following them both on Twitter), chatting about a topic close to my heart; my expectations were high.

Many of those expectations were justified. Dr Birney came across as the motivated, impassioned scientist I imagined, and talked freely about the need for both big data and open access.

He provided some great insights about what goes on behind the scenes in science, which is the real lure of such interviews to me. There was a lovely anecdote about running a sweepstake guessing the number of genes humans might have (before he counted them in his work on the Human Genome Project). There was even a nice take on the obligatory DNA-as-a-book metaphor, which anyone who has ever worked with DNA will have wheeled out at some point (how else would our parents know what we do?).

Yet ultimately, the show covered a lot of ground and so only touched on intriguing details that would have surely benefitted from development. We hear that Dr Birney lived with Jim Watson (co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA), but very little more about it than they ate breakfast together. We're told about his (frankly extremely cool) side project of using DNA as a long term digital storage medium, but nothing about the frustrations of being pipped to the post by George Church.

On the other hand, the controversy over a claim in a press release from the ENCODE consortium last year was discussed thoroughly. The papers picked up the hook that around 80 percent of the genome was 'functional' (see BioNews 672), but as the ensuing debate over this claim was largely semantic bickering over technical terms, I didn't really feel this topic justified the air time. At times, it even felt a little like a mid-scandal interview with a politician, a sensation probably encouraged by Dr Birney's Etonian accent.

I think my gripe with this show probably reflects the usual problem I have with listening to discussions for a broad audience on topics that I'm already reasonably familiar with; the talk necessarily has to go over information I already know, with only slim chances of it reaching a depth of content I'd want to be happy, in the allotted time slot.

(I do of course appreciate that as a scientist, my desire for detail is probably somewhere above what they're looking for in a prime-time slot on national radio; I'd just like it if maybe there was a downloadable, unedited version of such talks available, for nerds like me to gorge on - any chance BBC?)

I'm certainly going to recommend this show to friends and colleagues of mine who don't already follow Dr Birney's work, and I'll probably spend a significant portion of this weekend trawling through back episodes of the Life Scientific learning new stuff. However if, like me, you already know a bit about genomics or bioinformatics and want to really sink your teeth into the science, you're probably better off reading Dr Birney's blog and papers.
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