Professor Roger Morris, Head of the School of Biomedical Sciences at King’s College London, talks about how the study of science is changing.

I am one of that lucky generation who can look back on a golden age of scientific discovery, from the structure of DNA and the genetic code, to understanding the basis of cancer and now ageing itself.  The obsession of my generation with the science we have seen down our microscopes, or deduced from our X-ray pictures such as the famous photograph Rosalind Franklin took here at King’s, revealing the ordered, helical structure of DNA, has yielded findings that affect the way we view the world, and the way we raise crops and treat disease.

However, what we have singularly failed to do is to take our scientific training, our understanding of nature and our ability to deduce logical conclusions from the available evidence, into mainstream decision making in the world at large.   Too few politicians, journalists, industrialists, managers and ordinary citizens had a scientific education, over a period when decisions that would have changed the natural world for good, were not taken.  The multiple problems that feed the current surge in global warming are the prime example, but it is also easy to point to examples where political and commercial decisions have been made that have damaged the health of human and animal populations.

If ignorance of simple scientific principles has got us into major problems, it is equally true that we are not going to get ourselves out without now applying scientific knowledge and logic, at every level of society.  At King’s we are therefore educating our scientists to not only be leading researchers, but also to think about how their science impacts upon our world. And not just to think, but to publicise their views, engage in public debate, and choose careers in politics, journalism and the like so that scientific thinking feeds into public decision making.  We need to ensure that the next generation of scientists influence the decisions made that affect our world, and not just describe the natural laws that underlie it.

Is this happening?  Our science graduates, including PhDs, are now selected by business consultancies and financial firms because of their mathematical literacy and ability to analyse and deduce logically.  And more and more graduates, again up to PhD level, are entering law, journalism and business, again because their training in problem solving and analysis is highly valued in addition to their scientific knowledge.  This is the more general reach of science into society that we need.

This is all very promising, but the main need for scientists remains in high tech industry such as the pharmaceutical companies, and in scientific research and teaching in schools, universities and institutes.

Pharmaceutical firms are now looking for an open relationship with academic researchers, who often know more about the mechanism of particular diseases than the drug companies, and so can work with the companies to design more effective medicines.  This is beginning to lead to a sharing, not only of knowledge and ideas between companies and universities, but also of staff on secondment, and increasingly of the firms setting up laboratories in the universities or research institutes to work alongside the academics.

This is also leading to greater partnership in scientific education between firms and universities.  We at King’s have a number of MSc degrees that are designed to take basic science graduates with a good BSc degree and give them added skills and understanding to address particular needs of biotech and pharmaceutical firms.  These master’s programmes are designed alongside companies, who also deliver parts of the teaching and provide laboratory placements for a few months to give the students a real knowledge of how industry works.  (Businesses like this system as it enables them to scout out the best students, who then get offered jobs when they graduate).

Some of these courses have the industrial link in their name e.g. the MSc in Analytical Science for Industry, which is run by our Drug Control Centre that also monitors Olympic and Commonwealth athletes for performance-enhancing drugs. In other MScs the industrial link can be deduced from the name (e.g. MSc in Drug Discovery Skills).  And some courses sound positively exciting.  Our MSc in Forensic Science, produced in close collaboration with the UK Forensic Science Service, the Metropolitan Police and other crime detection agencies, has for many years produced trained forensic scientists working for justice in many countries across the globe.

To close, there are even more complex issues for biomedical science than crime, space or the development of new medicines, and these keep some of us working in our research labs.  For instance, we are just starting to understand how the brain develops (so very differently from any other tissue of the body) into an organ that thinks, feels and remembers.  And why, as the brain ages, it becomes progressively worse at these tasks, so that we have diseases of old age like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, that decay the mind inside an otherwise healthy body.

These studies are of medical importance, and also are immense intellectual challenges.  We are making progress, but understanding the physiological basis of mind and memory is so complex it will still challenge may generations to come.   We believe the brain functions by using and (for memory) permanently imprinting networks of connections between our neurons.  How many individual points of connection are there in our brains?  About 1,000,000,000,000,000, give or take a few trillion.  How many different patterns of connectivity can be set up between this number of connections? The number is unimaginably large, as it must be to provide the underlying structure that enables our personality, memory and thoughts to emerge.

Read more: www.kcl.ac.uk/biohealth and www.kcl.ac.uk/science

Professor Roger Morris: www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/biohealth/research/wolfson/people/rmorris.html