In the final part of my interview with Nobel Laureate, Rich Roberts, I ask Rich to share his thoughts on issues that currently concern him. Rich has not only made significant advances in Molecular Biology (and he hasn't even mention his group's discovery of Base Flipping in DNA in the early 1990s!), but he has also been a passionate champion of a number of social injustices and campaigns that have, or will have, a wide impact on the world in which we live. I have also been incredibly impressed by his generosity when it comes to stepping back to let students, junior colleagues and collaborators take centre stage. These characteristics have made Rich highly sought after as a speaker and adviser for many organisations world wide. Oh and in his spare time he directs research at one of the leading Life Science Companies in the USA, New England Biolabs!
Q Over the last 20 years, you have combined your research activities and commercial role at New England Biolabs, with a number of political and scientific "crusades". Indeed, recently, you have spoken in support of Global implementation of Genetically Modified Organisms. What do you think needs to be done in this respect and why?
GMOs are incredibly important for the future of mankind because they will allow us to feed the ever-increasing population of this earth. Without them even more people in developing countries will go hungry or starve to death than do so already. However, the developed world, which has no direct need of them personally, because their food needs are being met, have used them as a political ploy to gain power. I am thinking specifically of Greenpeace, which has taken the political line of being opposed to them so they can save the population of Europe from their potentially “harmful effects“. What better cause for a political party than to save the population from harm. However, those “harmful effects” are illusory. Every experiment to demonstrate harm has only shown them to be safe. This was easily predictable based on the far more dangerous possibilities that could come from traditional plant breeding. With GMOs, one known gene at a time is transferred to a new plant, whereas traditionally, hundreds of unknown genes are transferred during crosses. In addition traditional plant breeding techniques use radiation to induce mutations that it is hoped will confer beneficial properties to the plant. Again whole plant mutagenesis introduces lots of unknown mutations that really may be harmful. But the saddest part of this is that when Europeans declare something is dangerous in Europe, where it is not an absolute need, they cannot then go and tell the Africans it is OK for them. Instead they have to continue the myth that GMOs are dangerous and deter their use in exactly those countries where they are desperately needed.
One of the most dramatic cases where this political attitude is causing major problems is the issue of Golden Rice, a GMO that has introduced the retinol, the precursor of Vitamin A, into rice grains. This strain was made in 1998, was available for distribution in 2002, but still waits regulatory approval because it is a GMO. Somewhere between 1 and 2 million children die, or suffer severe developmental defects every year, because of a lack of Vitamin A. For most for these children a staple in their diet is rice. By substituting Golden Rice for their normal white rice these problems could be averted. Millions have died because of this delay – which continues to this day because of Greenpeace activists. How many must die, before the politicians in the Developed World are held accountable for crimes against humanity?
Q How important do you consider maths and computing for Life Scientists?
Mathematics has always been crucial to all scientists, but is now becoming of critical importance for biology for all of the reasons given above. In particular, statistics and some understanding of probability – especially when it concerns risk assessment should be in the arsenal of every life scientist, who in turn should be able to communicate the key ideas of risk assessment to the general public. Politicians revel in saving us from harm, but rarely have a good understanding themselves of just what is risky. Would we have allowed cars to be developed if we had known how many people would be killed by them every year? Despite all of the security measured at airports I can’t help but think that most is a complete waste of money. While some of us may feel safer, personally I would prefer no security other than common sense and just take my chances. However, I do have a strong history of good luck. I was originally booked to fly on one of the planes that hit the twin towers on 9/11, but just before the event I had to move my flight one day earlier.
Q Finally, what advice would you give to someone who is about to embark on a future in Science?
I give all young people the same advice. Find out what you can be – or are already – passionate about and make a career of it. Don’t worry about money because the happiest people in the world are those who get up on Monday and are exhilarated by the fact they have to go to work. Those same people usually hate Friday afternoons, when they realize they have to wait two days before they can get back to work again.
A big thanks to Rich for his time and for his inspirational comments, I shall be interviewing Scientists from all areas over the coming year, please share these with your family and friends!