Aspirations and challenges for the next generation of King’s science graduates
By Professor Roger Morris (Head, School of Biomedical Sciences)
I am one of that lucky generation who studied to become scientists in the 1960s, during a golden age of scientific discovery, from the structure of DNA and the genetic code, to understanding the basis of cancer.
The obsession of my generation with what we see down microscopes or deduce from X-rays, such as the famous photograph revealing the structure of DNA that Rosalind Franklin took here at King’s, has yielded findings that affect the way we view the world, treat disease and raise crops.
However, we have failed to take our scientific training, understanding of nature and 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 during a period when decisions that would have changed the natural world for good, were not taken. The prime example is the current surge in global warming, 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.
Increasing impact and influence
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.
Therefore, we at King’s are educating our scientists not only to be leading researchers, but also to think about how their science has an impact upon our world. And not just to think, but to publicise their views, engage in public debate, and choose careers in politics and journalism, so that scientific thinking feeds into public decision making.
We need to ensure that the next generation of scientists will influence the decisions made that affect our world, and not just describe the natural laws that underlie it.
Is this happening? Our graduates are selected by business consultancies and financial firms because of their mathematical literacy and ability to analyse and deduce logically. And more of our graduates, including at 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.
Working with industry to working for industry
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.
The relationship of science and scientific careers is changing between the industrial and academic worlds. Previously, major pharmaceutical companies sought to discover, produce and market their own medicines ‘in house’. However, there is a high rate of failure of costly drug development programmes.
Pharmaceutical firms are now looking for an open relationship with academic researchers to design more effective medicines. This leads to the sharing of knowledge and ideas between companies and universities. These firms are also setting up laboratories in the universities or research institutes to work alongside academics.
Partnerships in education
There is also greater partnership in scientific education between firms and universities.
At King’s, we offer MSc degrees that are designed to give good science graduates the added skills and knowledge to address particular needs of biotech and pharmaceutical firms.
These programmes are designed with 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. (The companies like this system as it enables them to scout out the best students, who then get offered jobs when they graduate.)
Some programmes have the industrial link in their name, such as Analytical Science for Industry, run by our Drug Control Centre that also monitors Olympic and Commonwealth athletes for performance-enhancing drugs.
Elsewhere, the industrial link can be deduced from the name (eg Drug Discovery Skills). Our Forensic Science MSc is produced in close collaboration with the UK forensic science industry, the Metropolitan Police and other crime detection agencies. For many years it has produced trained forensics scientists working for justice in many countries across the globe.
For the more adventurous, we have a Space Physiology & Health MSc, linked with the European Space Agency and their equivalents in Canada, Japan, Brazil, and NASA. For those afraid of astronomical heights, there is the Aviation Medicine MSc, run in conjunction with the Royal College of Physicians.
This provides a taste of our range of programmes which are designed with major employers to produce graduates who are ready for employment in a highly technological world.
Immense intellectual challenges
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 present immense intellectual challenges. We are making progress, but understanding the physiological basis of mind and memory is so complex it will still challenge many generations to come.