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Stanley N. Cohen (Professor of Genetics, Stanford University, USA) was one of the plenary lecture presenters at the 15th International Biotechnology Symposium, which took place Sept 16-21, 2012, in Daegu, Korea. In his plenary lecture, titled “Looking ahead after four decades of biotechnology”, Prof. Cohen provided a colourful history behind the development of recombinant DNA technology, starting from the days when his colleagues did not believe it was possible to transfer genes due to the species barrier, to the current ubiquitous presence of GM crops and the rise of the genomics era.

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Biotechnology Journal took the opportunity to sit down with Prof. Cohen over coffee to discuss some challenges related to innovation and funding today.

JP:

A clear message from your lecture is the ability to recognize the scientific importance of your hypothesis and not to be dissuaded by the mainstream opinion; however, going against the general dogma is not exactly a recipe for getting funding. How do you think researchers today can make seminal discoveries without significantly compromising their ability to get funding?

SC:

Yes, these days it is difficult to go against dogma and obtain funding for projects that propose highly novel approaches, but the funding process is also flexible enough to allow researchers to address scientific questions that extend beyond those they are funded for. My first research grant from the NIH in 1968 was for studying antibiotic resistance, and that led to the invention of recombinant DNA technology. Some funding agencies try specifically to encourage more innovation and novel ideas that may lead to genuine breakthroughs.

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JP:

Do you think the challenges may have to do with the current funding system, and if so, how could this be changed so that it would encourage and not stifle innovation?

SC:

I don't think it is necessarily the system that needs to be changed. Overall, the mechanisms for public funding of scientific research work well; the problem lies in the amount of funding that is available. At a time when the top 40% of applications were funded, there was room for flexibility and for funding agencies to take more risks in supporting novel ideas. Currently, with a funding level around 6–8%, funding bodies are driven to be more risk averse.

Another important issue is the public appreciation for research and innovations. While there is a strong focus on applied research, the breakthroughs that have benefited the public most have come largely from basic studies. In my own work, I did not set out to invent recombinant DNA technology; my goal was to understand at a fundamental level how microbes acquire the ability to circumvent the effects of antibiotics.

JP:

Professor Cohen, thank you for the insight and thank very much for talking with us.

Learn about DNA and more insights from Prof. Stanley Cohen at

Judy Peng, Managing Editor, Biotechnology Journal