Last month the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee, which scrutinises Government policy relating to science and technology, announced an inquiry into the future of UK life sciences . This is off the back of the Government’s Industrial Strategy Green Paper  and aims to investigate, amongst other things, whether or not the Government has the infrastructure to support an innovative life sciences sector in the UK.
As somebody with a passion for bioimaging I thought I might stress the importance of bioimaging and similar supporting technologies. Without technologies such as bioimaging and next generation sequencing, the UK biosciences and bioeconomy would not be the innovative and world-class scene that it is. So, here it is, my two pence worth.
The Importance of Bioimaging
Bioimaging is probably the dominant form of analysis within the biosciences and occurs at a wide range of scales: from molecules to whole organisms. Further, imaging is used across the life sciences from biomedical and veterinary science through to microbiology and agriculture; thus it has a major role in both fundamental life sciences and the life science industry.
The advancement of the bioimaging field is rapid, as with many other supporting technologies, and new methods for quantification and analysis are further expanding the scope and power of such technology. In order to maintain the UK’s position as a world leader in life science innovation, bioimaging must be fully supported and advances must be capitalised.
Like many other supporting technologies, bioimaging is a multidisciplinary field and requires research and interaction with many other disciplines. Further, important new techniques can arise in bioimaging through translation from seemingly disparate disciplines, e.g. adaptive optics from astronomy. As such, a narrow-approach to life science innovation or even to supporting the broader spectrum of life science technology and research must be avoided. Life science innovation comes from across the board and the Government needs to recognise and structure its systems appropriately.
The Bioimaging Ecosystem
To enable such a multidisciplinary field, and especially to push commercialisation, as industry is a central aspect of this inquiry, the entire bioimaging ecosystem, including enabling technologies, must be well supported and invested in; for bioimaging this goes right from lasers and detectors through to labelling and probes and beyond, both in academia and industry.
Further, support and invest must work at multiple levels: not only does the UK life science community need access to state-of-the-art bioimaging, but support and funding must be available to maintain strong workhorse equipment and facilities. Nowadays most cell biologists will use a confocal microscope as a standard tool and these need be easy to access and supported for maintenance and turnover but may traditionally attract less funding due to their very nature of being workhorse instruments. It’s worth noting the excellent standard of UK bioimaging facilities at academic institutes and how important they are to enabling world-class bioscience research; these facilities are important not just for access to essential bioimaging technologies but also as centres of training, expertise and knowledge.
People and Skills
All the technology on the planet might be rendered useless without well-trained people with the appropriate skills. This requires training at all career stages, and arguably at secondary education level too, ranging from statistics and data literacy into practical skills. Data and coding skills are, in particular, a key area of concern in the biosciences community, without which the potential of state-of-the-art bioimaging equipment cannot be reached.
A strong research community requires not just project leaders and PhD students but also strong staff scientists and technical staff. The career paths for the whole spectrum of those involved in academic and industrial bioscience need to be clear, supported and sustainable through training and professional opportunities.
Not only is it important to have data literate researchers, to work across disciplines to foster better data quantification approaches and to integrate data from different modalities (both within and without imaging) but it is important to be able to share data. Sharing requires community driven standards but, for such a data intensive technology as bioimaging, a strong data infrastructure both at local institutions and across the UK is essential. The current UK data infrastructure may well not be up to the data requirements of future bioimaging technology and the enabled biosciences.
And so much more…
I could go on. But I won’t. I’m sure similar arguments can be made for many different fields that form the foundation of the UK’s world-class biosciences and really I guess the point I’m making is that an innovative life sciences industry in the UK can only thrive with an innovative life sciences research community, which in turns relies on advances in its supporting technologies, such as bioimaging. The Select Committee must bear this in mind in their inquiry.