At the tail end of last year – a time that tends to be fairly quiet in terms of news worthy events in the science community – several momentous announcements came across the LN news desk. Those industrious particle pushers at CERN told the world that they are nipping at the heels of the elusive Higgs boson, the Government put its hand in its pocket as it promised to stump up some serious incentives for the life science sector – but most enticing of all, for me at least, was the news that the UK Biobank was revealing details of how researchers can get their hands on all that lovely data.
‘Why the excitement?’ You might reasonably ask. For it is not as if the resource is allowing access to its bounty yet – that won’t be until the spring of this year – but what it has done is give a glimpse as to what researchers could achieve using it. There is I think, a definite thrill at the possibility of what lies within.
In the spring of last year I had the pleasure of supporting a good friend of mine whilst he was running the Brighton Marathon. In the moments before the race a distinct air of excitement pervaded the melee of collected athletes as they stood at the precipice of their endeavours. And it is precisely this sense of focussed potentiality that the Biobank evokes. Like an Egyptologist being shown the door to a newly discovered tomb – they may be yet to excavate and peer inside at all the treasures, but they are aware it could be career defining.
Designed to allow scientists to examine the complex interaction of genes, lifestyle and other environmental factors in causing different diseases, UK Biobank collected a wide range of information on more than 500,000 participants aged 40-69 years. It took a long time to collate all this raw data, 5 years in fact, but that is nothing compared to the time it will take to mine all of its hidden information. Indeed, it is the next generation of scientists, who might still be in primary school today, who are most likely to unlock new secrets as to how we prevent disease.
Let’s hope that the next generation of scientists step up to the plate – having recently attended the STEMNET awards which recognise the UK’s most inspirational people for motivating young people in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, I am confident they will. I have to say it was an absolute joy to be in a room with so many people who have given so much to encourage and guide young people into the world of R&D.
Ex-Minister for Science and Innovation Lord Sainsbury, who hosted the awards, pointed out that there will be a generation of scientists, engineers and technicians that will be very thankful to their STEMNET ambassador. I think he will be shown to be right, but I’d further this and say that the country as a whole will be thankful.