Science is vital – to public health


Last night I went to the Science is Vital rally (Science: as vital as ever). I have to express my admiration for all the organisers and presenters, who I thought did a tremendous job on short notice. There was a wide range of talks, from personal stories of cancer patients to exhortations to use 10% less toilet paper (the UK spends 5x more per person on toilet paper than on cancer research, IIRC).

During the event I was thinking what a great success story for UK science, whole genome sequencing for pathogens has been (conflict of interest: this is the area I work in). Illumina sequencing, the workhorse of genomics, was developed from blue skies research from the University of Cambridge chemistry department. This was spun out to form Solexa in 1998, and subsequently acquired by Illumina in 2007. Now, at Public Health England, every Salmonella isolate received by the lab is sequenced with this technology, which is revolutionising our ability to detect linked cases of Salmonella and to hopefully drive down the number of cases of Salmonella in the UK.

So, in less than 20 years, we have gone from startup company to frontline public health application for a technology. This isn’t just an incremental improvement, it enable a fundamental shift in what you can do in public health, and the shockwaves of this are going to be rattling cages for the next 20 years, until people wonder how we ever did it any other way.

At steps all along the way, UK science has been vital, not only in developing the underlying techniques but all the bioinformatics approaches to analyse the data. I hope the relevant politicians ask themselves this – do they want to live in a country that leads the way in this kind of advancement in so many fields, or one that is relegated to observer status, to constantly be playing catch up?

One thought on “Science is vital – to public health

  1. Pingback: Science is vital – are academics? | Bits and Bugs

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