John Mattick: Let’s invest in the scientists looking over our horizon

In this opinion piece in The Australian, Garvan's Executive Director, Professor John Mattick AO FAA says Australia needs to invest in farsighted and trailblazing researchers.

Professor John Mattick AO FAA

17 July 2017

The acquisition of knowledge — science — and its application to improve the human condition is the grandest and most important of human endeavours.

It is responsible for our prosperity, and allows for a just society by sharing that prosperity with those who are less fortunate in the lottery of life. It underpins the wealth of nations. It will also enable a more harmonious and sustainable relationship with our planet. Provided the prosaic aspects of managing a civil society are done well, and respectful discourse is allowed, nothing is more important to our future.

Humans are on a journey from ignorance to awareness, but we don’t know where we are on that journey. It started with the ancients — the Egyptian geometricians, the Greek natural philosophers, the Roman engineers, the Chinese chemists and the Indian mathematicians, who invented the concept of zero, a simple but profound advance brought to the West via the ­Middle East, at a time when that region was intellectually active, sadly now in remission.

It gathered pace in the Renaissance of Europe, led by luminaries such as Copernicus and Galileo, who was popular for being able to calculate the trajectories of cannonballs, but not so popular for agreeing with Copernicus that the Earth was not the centre of the solar system. Religious ideology snuffed out the Renaissance in Italy, which got no further than art, despite Da Vinci’s creative technical brilliance. Inquiry and innovation moved to the northwest, principally to England and France, with the creation of their scientific academies and the rise of Newton, Hooke and Descartes, to name a few, who invented the new mathematics, and developed the dynamic relationship between theory and experiment.

This scientific revolution, better called the Enlightenment, accelerated in the 19th and 20th centuries with the birth of modern chemistry and electronics, which fuelled the Industrial Revolution.

Every generation believes it has established the conceptual framework for understanding the natural world, and that from thereon it is just a matter of detail. Lord Kelvin made this mistake at the end of the 19th century when he predicted the end of physics; Francis Fukuyama did likewise at the end of the 20th century when he predicted the end of history. The same mistake, although not widely realised, is being made in molecular biology today, which assumes we can put Humpty Dumpty back together again if we understand individual genes. In fact, very little of human ­biology can be explained by the current conceptual framework, and the rapid evolution of human cognition remains unexplained.

There are great mysteries everywhere, always the clue to what we don’t know. Science will continue to accelerate in the coming century, across all fields, but the 21st century will be the century of biology and medicine. The genesis of this age is symbolised by the double helix, the beautiful and iconic structure of DNA, solved by Watson and Crick in 1953. The result has been the rise of molecular biology in the second half of the 20th century, powered by technologies that made it possible to isolate, amplify and sequence genes, which in turn enabled the human genome project.

Just 16 years ago it cost $3 billion to generate the first draft human genome sequence: imagine a species having advanced to a sufficient technological sophistication to read its own genetic heritage! The cost has plummeted since then, the most spectacular technological revolution in history, far faster than the famed Moore’s Law of Computing.

The technological advances in high-throughput DNA sequencing, accompanied by high-resolution visualisation techniques, will finally enable us to understand human development and cognition. It is clear that the human genome is a far more sophisticated software suite — a zip file — that not only specifies the mechanical parts of the body but also its assembly. Understanding this “software” will almost certainly transform information processing and computing systems in the future. It has been estimated that just a teaspoon of DNA could hold all the data in the world if we work out how to use it as a storage device.

Genome information will also transform healthcare and the health system, and consequently the economies of nations. All human characteristics, including susceptibility to disease, are profoundly influenced by genetic factors. The ability to read this information at scale, and integrate it with clinical information and data from the internet of things will transform medical research and medicine from the last of the cottage industries into the most important of the large-data systems. And, of course, health is the largest, most important and fastest-growing industry in the world.

Australia is well placed to lead this transformation, with its outstanding healthcare system and strong biomedical research and technology base, including one of the largest human genome sequencing centres and one of the first genomic analysis companies in the world. However, it has to make the strategic decision to do so, with co-ordinated action and strategic government investment, notably the areas of health and industry, overseen and delivered by a dedicated agency akin to that established by Genomics England under the auspices of the National Health Service.

In the meantime, as demonstrated time and again in history, progress and success will likely depend on farsighted trailblazers to initiate our journey into the future. Indeed, most of the transformative advances of the past century came out of left field. For this reason it is imperative for the future prosperity of Australia that basic discovery research be nurtured in our universities, CSIRO and medical research institutes.

The National Health and Medical Research Council has just taken a big step in the right direction by restructuring its research grant portfolio to focus on “investigator grants”, which will provide a stable five-year platform and (hopefully) sufficient resources to enable gifted investigators to be expansive and draw a longer bow, supplanting the narrow project grants, which merely encouraged orthodoxy. This will be supplemented by “ideas grants”, to encourage innovation.

Hopefully Australia can live up to its stated ambition and potential to be a smart nation.

John Mattick is executive director of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney.

This article originally appeared on 17th July, 2017 in The Australian. It has been republished here with permission. 

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