Luis Martín

«Civilized societies should recognize that healthcare is a government responsibility» –Richard J. Roberts

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Richard J. Roberts (Derby, Reino Unido, 1943)

Richard J. Roberts (Derby, United Kingdom, 1943)

Richard J. Roberts is a British chemist who currently resides in the United States, where he is chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs (Beverly, Mass.).

In 1993 Roberts was awarded, with Phillip Sharp, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of «split genes» in 1977.

The study of adenovirus genetic material, one of the viruses that cause the common cold, led Roberts to discover that genes could be discontinuous, that is, a gene could be present in the genetic material (DNA) as several, well-separated segments. Roberts’ discovery has been of fundamental importance for today’s basic research in biology, as well as for more medically oriented research concerning the development of cancer and other diseases.

(This interview is available in Spanish)

You live in a country that debates weather “evolutionism” or “creationism” should be taught in the classrooms. Such a debate takes place in a country where scientists design robots that can send pictures from Mars, as well as three-dimensional printers that produce replacement bones for humans. What are your thoughts on the prevalence of such contrasting views?

Since these views, which are basically anti-science, pervade US society it is clear we are not doing enough as scientists to dispel them. We are failing to educate our young people properly and we allow our politicians to behave as though science doesn’t exist.

Frankly, I personally find it a very sad reflection on our society in the US that we find it almost impossible to even discuss many scientific issues in a rational manner. Logic has become a fluid concept that is clearly not well understood by many elements of society.

As for our politicians, I often feel we should recall all of them and start again. Almost no one in the general population believes they are doing a good job and yet they are allowed to stay in office. Are we crazy?

The Fukushima nuclear disaster has led Japan to announce the phasing out of its nuclear power over the next twenty years. Can the world really afford to turn its back on nuclear energy?

No. While there are many other sources of energy that are both renewable and sustainable it is unlikely we can ever harness enough to replace coal, oil and natural gas.

We must pursue the nuclear option until we can find a truly sustainable option that won’t pollute us out of existence.

I would favor charging such politicians who try to export their anti-GMO campaigns to Africa and elsewhere with crimes against humanity.

Similarly, there are growing political forces against genetically-modified foods. What is your view on this debate?

Again we have a case of politics trumping logic and common sense. The most egregious example is in Europe where the Green party seized upon GMOs as a good political rallying cry and was able to convince a generally cautious public of dangers that have not been shown to exist.

What is saddest about this is that of all the countries in the world those in Europe have no desperate need for GMOs so the politicians were not condemning their populations to starvation without them. In contrast, in many developing countries there will not be enough food to sustain current and expanding populations without GMOs. Thus, the move by the Greens to try and convince these countries of the dangers of GMOs is bordering on the criminal. It is the Greens who are dangerous!

Personally, I would favor charging such politicians who try to export their anti-GMO campaigns to Africa and elsewhere with crimes against humanity. If they succeed they will be responsible for even more deaths than the Nazis during the Second World War.

In the midst of the current economic crisis, particularly in southern Europe, one would think that fueling scientific and technological advances is critical to developing new economic models. As usual, however, science and education are the first budget items being slashed. Why do you think this continues to happen?

For most, I think the problem is that they take science for granted and don’t realize that it needs continued sustenance if it is to continue to grow and be healthy.

There is also a strong tendency for governments to discount the value of basic science, from which the next major breakthroughs will come and when they do provide funding they tend to focus on the short term potential of strongly applied research.

I also find that politicians love to talk about how important education is, but then they routinely fail to fund it. Could it be that they prefer an uneducated population because they fear that a well-educated population would see right them and fire them?

You are a scientist and an entrepreneur. What do you think are the necessary elements for a country to promote the emergence of a pool of scientific investigators, technological innovators and entrepreneurs?

Number one is to value education and support young people who want to break with tradition and move in new directions. Too often the aging population from which many politicians are drawn have become so ossified that they don’t want change and don’t support the kind of rebellious young people who are the innovators and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

I always tell young people that their job is to rebel against dogma and old ideas and realize that they might just have the best ideas for the future themselves. After all it is going to be their world that they are building.

The development of the biotechnology industry arose from the publicly funded war on cancer that was initiated by President Nixon.

What is the key to the success of the US model of privately-funded scientific research? Is for-profit-research the best model for all forms of scientific advancement, or are there exceptions?

I don’t agree that privately-funded research is what has made the US successful. Rather it is the combination of public and private monies that has done it.

One of the most striking examples has been the development of the biotechnology industry, which arose from the publicly funded war on cancer that was initiated by President Nixon. The initial breakthroughs came with public money, not private money. In fact, as a general rule, the only time that private money comes into play is when some investor believes that a fortune can be made by applying previous basic research to a particular problem.

Thus, the private part of the equation usually only kicks in when the initial groundbreaking work has ended. That is not to say that further breakthroughs don’t emerge, just that there is usually a clear product and market in sight and the promise of vast profits stokes their enthusiasm to invest.

Tell us about your company, New England Biolabs (NEB), and its business model.

NEB is rather different from most companies in the world today and our success has flown in the face of the usual business models that predicted we would fail very early on because we did everything wrong – i.e. not according to standard economic models.

We are a profit sharing company, we support a lot of basic research and we have a founder, Dr. Don Comb, who was not interested in becoming personally wealthy. Rather he wanted to invest the profits from the business in research and he wanted to help researchers in universities and companies by providing the highest quality reagents at affordable prices. Indeed, when we first began cloning the genes for restriction enzymes and it became cheaper for us to make them we immediately lowered our prices. This was an unheard-of move where usually a business will want to pocket the increased profit that results from the better margins.

What are the applications of your research products and how are your discoveries impacting other scientific fields today?

Our early success stemmed from the fact that in 1975 we were the first company to sell restriction enzymes and immediately gained a leading position in the market. We still have it today. These enzymes were absolutely key to the development of the Biotechnology industry and still play an important role in molecular biological techniques. Whereas at first they were merely useful reagents in academic labs now they have found uses in commercial research and in diagnostic procedures. Since then we have expanded our line of reagents into many other aspects of molecular biology research and sell polymerases, DNA methylases and reagents for RNA and glycobiology research.

We pride ourselves on being one of the world’s finest and most knowledgeable companies making enzymes.

Civilized societies should recognize that healthcare is a government responsibility.

Genetic vaccines and treatments, replacement organs from stem cells, telemedicine… Some argue that, besides a longer life, such advances also promise lower costs in healthcare and favor its universalization. Do you agree?

I agree completely. Civilized societies, of which Europe is a shining example, should recognize that healthcare is a government responsibility – and should not be a capitalist money-making endeavor.

I don’t want a company to benefit on the premise that I am going to be sick. And I definitely don’t want a private insurance company to gauge whether or not I will become sick when they are calculating my premiums and refuse coverage if the odds of my becoming sick are too great. My health should not be jeopardized by their calculation of how to make the most profit from me.

China has shown to be less risk averse as a government than many developed countries and more willing to invest in good people.

Besides its less restrictive approach to areas such as stem cell research, what else is fueling China’s emergence as a major hub for scientific research?

A major reason is that the Chinese are smart and the country is run by scientists, often engineers, who see the value of science and logical thinking. Their core values extend into their population who also value science.

Stem cell research and its derivatives are easily among the star attraction at the moment, but I would not be surprised if they don’t jump just as quickly on the next major breakthrough.

They have also shown themselves to be less risk averse as a government than many developed countries and more willing to invest in good people. If they ever discover how to encourage and foster the creativity (usually rebelliousness) that characterizes the best science in the developed world we will all be trailing behind them.

Just as it happened with in vitro fertilization, gender selection is becoming a booming business. Considering the rapid progress in these areas, as well as advancements in genetic research, are we heading closer to Huxley’s world – a society in which we will see the «alfa» children of the affluent and powerful competing with the common people’s «epsilons»?

Already, the “alfa” children – those with wealthy parents – have a decided edge within society. They can get into Harvard on legacy scholarships and find it much easier to buy their way into the best education and into good companies. It does not seem to me to be necessary to “engineer” them genetically when they are already so advantaged. Perhaps, more importantly, we wouldn’t even know where to begin!

I am heartened by the fact that so many high-achieving individuals have come from very poor backgrounds and didn’t have to purchase their success. It would be a very sad day if we find ourselves able to engineer “alfa” people. How dull our world would become in the absence of the diversity that currently characterizes it.

Natural selection is a much preferred – and probably more efficient – mode of finding the “alfas.” Who would have guessed that the very best in so many fields could come from the developing countries in Africa where the bell curve of diversity is broadest and the outliers are so truly spectacular in their achievements.

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