A decade ago, the Human Genome Project published the reference sequence of our species’ genetic code at a cost estimated at $3bn. How things change: the UK Department of Health now plans to index 100,000 individuals’ DNA at little more than £1,000 a time – and to use this data to improve their healthcare.
I am proud of my part in this revolution. I, along with David Klenerman, developed a sequencing method that is part of this shift. Solexa, the company we founded, was sold for $600m – a scientific and commercial success that is helping to make people healthier. None of it would have been possible without public support.
When David and I began to play with nucleic acids in our Cambridge laboratory in the 1990s, we were not trying to invent anything. We were following our curiosity about the molecular machines that nature uses to copy our DNA. It was an unintended consequence that our work just happened to be useful.
Indeed, it was only possible thanks to generous taxpayer funding for blue-skies research from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. It was only when we began to discuss our research at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, the world-leading genomics centre, that we realised what we had.
This is not an atypical story for science spinouts. Advances in basic research often turn into unforeseen commercial opportunities. But the research funding required for this type of innovation is being threatened in this month’s public spending round. I have deep concerns about this, both as an entrepreneur and as a scientist.
We do not invest very much in research: the science budget accounts for just 0.7 per cent of public spending. This limited spend, however, is a lever that attracts substantially more money from private and charitable sources. It would be a false economy if we were to cut it.
A reduction, or even a spending freeze, would have substantial knock-on effects, leading to much deeper falls in the cash available for British science, technology and commercial development. It would stifle both the basic science that generates exploitable discoveries and the private investment that is needed for companies such as Solexa to develop their intellectual property and grow. It would be just what Britain does not need as we look to the knowledge economy as an engine of growth.
The UK is, at the moment, a truly exceptional environment for curiosity-driven discoveries, inventions, and their successful translation into useful technologies and profitable businesses. We have the right balance of public and charitable support, strong universities and private investment for scientific entrepreneurs to bring good ideas to market.
My own career development bears this out: I recently started my second company, Cambridge Epigenetix – again a result of unexpected findings during basic research backed by modest taxpayer funding, which have gone on to attract private investment. It is the product of a superb innovation ecosystem in which public, charitable and private funding complement one another to generate discoveries, technologies, employment and wealth.
That ecosystem is finely tuned, and the threat to its public component threatens the whole. The chancellor must take care to conserve it, so the scientist-entrepreneurs of the future have a habitat in which they can thrive.
The writer is a Wellcome Trust Investigator at the University of Cambridge, and was a founder of Solexa and Cambridge Epigenetix