In conversation: Lord Willetts

Building a responsible scientific ecosystem at the convergence of disciplines

In this interview, the Rt Hon. the Lord Willetts Executive Chair of the Resolution Foundation sits down with the Synthace team to chat synthetic biology, responsible science and building a world class scientific ecosystem.

We see many people using buzzwords and making statements about science in the media. Do you think these hype generating comments are a help or hindrance to the people doing the innovative work, especially in an area like Synthetic Biology?

I think they are a hindrance because they can, first of all, lead to expectations of how rapidly you can advance, which are ahead of the reality. My view is, these are incredibly important technologies that are going to change the world in the long term. It does not mean that they are necessarily going to change the world in the next 12 months. Sometimes it can lead to impatience and frustration. Also, I have to say, sometimes someone like Craig Venter, announcing what he has done, may create anxieties amongst normal citizens about what the synthetic biologists are up to. I think one thing that the world of Synthetic Biology needs to look out for is that it must not go the way of GM or nuclear and be seen as a terrible, scary thing. So it is got to be open and realistic all the time.

So who do you think has got a role to play in policing the discussion? Do universities have a larger role to play in training scientists to be more responsible?

Universities and the media do have a role. I am a great believer in both synthetic biology globally, but also the UK’s particular strength in synthetic biology. When I was the Science Minister, it is one of the key technologies that I invested into. However, I also remember commissioning Science Wise who ran structured scientific dialogues, just to cross-check as to what the average British citizen thought about Synthetic Biology. When it was explained to them, they were not hostile. They were interested. However, they did ask very telling questions such as, “Are scientists just doing this because they can do it? or doing it for the glory, rather than because it is going to improve human life?” So, you need a regulatory and an ethical framework. The regulatory framework need not be a new framework. You may be able to use existing frameworks successfully.

So leading onto what you just said there, you mentioned as Science Minister you prioritised synthetic biology. Do you think it is right that governments prioritise specific scientific areas and maybe look to create champions in those fields? Alternatively, should it be up to the markets?

Well, I prioritised it as applied technology. Core science funding is in the science budget. It, of course, can be shaped and influenced by the Ministers but it is fundamentally protected so when research councils are deciding what projects they should be looking to fund, then Ministers do not determine that. However, then there’s Britain’s problem of the so-called Valley of Death. The journey from being a science project to becoming an applied, commercialised technology. My view was that government support stops too soon. American federal and state agencies are funding technologies much closer to market than we do in the UK, so I wanted the UK government to do more to help at that stage. However, resources are limited, which means that you cannot support every technology on this journey. So, drawing on expert advice, I identified what I called The Eight Great Technologies where the UK had a global scientific lead, and there were very significant business opportunities. One of them was synthetic biology, where in the UK is a leader with China and the US.

To build these globally impactful and scaled-up businesses such as Amgen or Google, do you think the government should be doing more to protect our industries here in the UK? Alternatively, should we leave it, again, up to the market?

Well, I am ultimately a believer in an open market in corporate control. It is part of my residual Thatcherism. I worked with Margaret Thatcher in the 1980’s, and in different ways, my economic thinking has changed and moved on, but we do need to have open markets in corporate control. However one of the structural weaknesses in UK commercialisation is selling out too soon. The Solexa sale to Illumina must have looked to those venture capitalists as a great deal. In fact, the deal was great for Illumina. It is now 70% of their IP, and last time I checked, they were worth 32 billion dollars. I fear that with Deep Mind, we will say, hang on, we have the world’s leading AI company, and we sold it for 400 million when it should be worth 10 billion. So we do tend to sell early. Now, given that the government cannot just pass an order saying ‘thou shalt not sell’, what can we do?  One of the things that make some of our companies weak is that they become corporate entities too soon when they are really still science projects which should be funded as science projects. You can also create the environment where even if they are sold, nobody wants to move them out of the UK. On this, I think it is great that Deep Mind is still here. You could also promote patient capital in the UK so that there are UK investors who understand the value of what’s going on.

There is a real tendency in the UK ecosystem to benchmark ourselves to other ecosystems – especially against the US. You mentioned one example with the funding gap. What else do you think those ecosystems are doing better than us, and what can we take from them to support our own ecosystem?

First of all, of course, we must not beat up on ourselves too much. Across the UK and especially the Oxford/Cambridge/London golden triangle we are probably (globally) third after the US West Coast and then the Boston area. What can we do more of to support them? One of the things you do notice in the US is the depth of understanding of science and tech amongst investors. I remember that early on in Synthetic Biology, where a lot of work was being done successfully at Imperial, we had a big idea where they were going to put in a shop window some of the companies that were emerging. As a sort of festival, to encourage investors. Then they asked me along in the evening, to host a dinner there with possible investors. At that dinner American investors had flown in from the West Coast. There was nobody from The City who had taken the tube or a taxi from the City of London. Now, why is that?

One reason is that those American West Coast investors are also people who’ve got DPhil’s in synthetic biology. Or they have had a sufficiently broad education that at least they had been working with science and tech for a long time. In the UK, because we specialise so early in subjects at school that, you can be talking to someone with really significant investment decisions in a bank or fund who has not done any science since the age of 16.

I argue in my new book, A University Education, that this early specialisation is a crucial weakness. So all the British scientists and technologists say one of their frustrations is that whereas when they turn up with an American fund, they start with a grown-up conversation straight away. When you turn up with a UK fund, you have to spend the first hour explaining what synthetic biology is. And of course, people are risk-averse. The investors are risk-averse, because they do not understand what they are investing into. Understanding what you are investing in is a great way of realising what the real risks are and how big they are. So I think we have an educational problem. Secondly, that there is a need for more patient capital. Of course, the Treasury has been doing some really useful work on that. I hope that now the British Business Bank will be more innovative in the way it supports patient capital and we must hope that with the latest set of announcements in the autumn budget we are going to have a really significant role for the British Business Bank. It really could help.

I hate to use a buzzword here, but industry 4.0 and automation – the future of work. What’s your feeling on this term, industry 4.0, and also how the economy will react to this and the general automation trend that’s emerging?

On this, I am afraid I am again a believer in the classical doctrine. There is, of course, transitional disruption. You are going to have been trained for one job, and that job could disappear. However, that does not mean that society as a whole, in the long term, has no constructive work for people to do.  Britain has gone through this, as other Western countries have, already. We have virtually no coal miners now. When I started my career as a civil servant, all around Whitehall, including my department the Treasury, there were loads of typists. The typing pool has disappeared. There will be these type of structural changes in the jobs we do. My view is that as human wants change, there will be new services and new products requiring people to use their skills in new ways.

In science and in pharma, we have a highly skilled workforce. What do you think about the role of the government in facilitating digital training to allow them and others to participate in the 4th industrial revolution?

When I was going around labs as science minister, meeting people doing doctorates, post-docs, or whatever, even I as a layman thought that some of the actual work they were doing operating the kit was crying out for automation. It did look as if it could be automated, and it is being automated. Look at the way genetic sequencing is being automated. I believe that this will liberate these fantastic people to do more creative research. I think we will find ways of using them, and we will be using them far better than in the old days.

Looking forward to the next few years, what’s the scientific thing you are most interested in following?

Well, there so much exciting stuff happening. I have been a fan of Synthace for a long time and am very excited about what it is doing. As they say in Cambridge, it is this convergence of wet and dry. It is this point where biological sciences and the big data, the digital revolution, come together. You can see that happening in a host of locations, but I think in Britain, because of our historic strengths in the life sciences, and also because we are very good at smart software and things like that, we should be at a place where that connection happens. And I regard Synthace as a great example of that connection.

What about the thing that you’re most worried about, then? And that can be in general. And you cannot pick Brexit!

I am worried about the next big ‘scare’. Some scientists working at the frontiers, including in synthetic biology, don’t recognise that they need wide public support to continue to function, Think of Germany banning nuclear power after Fukushima. Think of, in Britain, protesters tearing up experimental fields of GM crops. It is possible for these things to go backwards. especially as some of the very advances that we are all excited about could enable a crackpot, almost in his bedroom, to construct a new cell, to design a new bug. So if you ask me what worries me, it is either something really dangerous emerging -or- it’s popular anxiety that things really dangerous could emerge, not properly addressed, leading to a clampdown on this whole area of scientific activity.

The Rt Hon. Lord David Willetts is the Executive Chair of the Resolution Foundation. He served as the Member of Parliament for Havant (1992-2015), as Minister for Universities and Science (2010-2014) and previously worked at HM Treasury and the No. 10 Policy Unit.

Lord Willetts is a visiting Professor at King’s College London, a board member of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a Board member of Surrey Satellites and of the Biotech Growth Trust, Chair of the British Science Association, a Governor of the Ditchley Foundation and a member of the Council of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. He is a member of the Board of the Crick Institute and a Trustee of the Science Museum. He is an Honorary Fellow of Nuffield College Oxford.

Lord Willetts has written widely on economic and social policy. His book ‘The Pinch’ about fairness between the generations was published in 2010. His latest book “A University Education” is published by Oxford University Press.