Coffee and apple strudel

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Group of business people sitting in a line at a panel.

My academic meeting in Vienna had been on various perspectives on fetal and childhood growth and development. I was one of the chairs of the meeting, and its distinctive feature was its focus on an interdisciplinary approach. The research agenda is clearly shifting from the traditional siloed approach of hormonal, nutritional, anthropological and sociological perspectives, to a much more integrated approach. The meeting covered disciplines from the molecular to the economic.

One of my collaborators from the UK had presented our epigenetic data which I think opens up new understandings of how early life factors have their echoes on many aspects of subsequent biology. He had the easy job in that the audience was much more comfortable with reductionist approaches.

My own lecture was on the value of an evolutionary approach, pointing out that this is the only framework we have to completely integrate different biological domains. I spent considerable time describing how the level of explanation provided by evolutionary biology adds enormously to the traditional biomedical perspective. The latter focuses on the proximate mechanisms coming from the more reductionist disciplines—in a sense asking why certain phenomena occur rather than how they occur.

I had to sum up the first day of the meeting, and it was interesting to try to bridge some of the conceptual gaps between the disciplines. What was clear is how what appear to be very simple questions can generate all sorts of complexities. Much of the discussion had focused around explaining the genetic basis of growth. After all, we all know that height has strong familial tendencies, but the power of modern genomics has failed to explain much of the basis of this association. Perhaps the conceptual basis for these massive genome-wide association studies is wrong, and we spent a lot of time debating the dominance of genetic determinism and how that has constrained intellectual thought in biology in recent times.

It is clear that we still know very little about optimal ways to improve the health of mothers and infants. It is also evident that the issues associated with both unbalanced nutrition in the West, and the ongoing issues of malnutrition in developing countries, have really important long-term consequences. The practical problems of how to do better and how to implement clinical trials to improve nutrition during both pregnancy and childhood are real. Yet, even the definition of what is healthy fetal development is problematic.

In essence, we still rely on simple measures such as birth weight, yet the real goal is not a specific birth weight but a baby well positioned and prepared to transition to the next stages of its development. This was an approach championed by a technical group that I chaired at the World Health Organization some years ago. The practical, contextual and conceptual issues for developmental science remain a real challenge.

Unfortunately I could not stay for the whole meeting as I had committed to assist the Government during my visit to Vienna. We have only recently re-established our embassy there and I had agreed to help our ambassador build relationships with the Austrian science establishment. New Zealand science relationships with Austria are not extensive, although there are a number of individual collaborations. But Austria has many similarities to New Zealand, and it was useful to hear their perspective on science in Europe and look for opportunities for greater associations. It was a chance to present our commitment to the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases, and to the Square Kilometre Array. They were very interested in my work on the relationship between science, evidence and policy formation, and it informed the basis of some very lengthy discussions. It appears to be an area where our office is having impact beyond our own shores.

I met with one of the senior officials of the Ministry of Agriculture and Environment in a classical Vienna coffee house in the traditional student area to discuss the Global Research Alliance. I could not help wondering whether my grandmother, Augusta, who had spent time in the late 1920s studying paediatrics in Vienna after graduating from Otago, might have had her coffee and apple strudel in the same smoke stained café. It is sad how we come to wonder about our heritage too late in our lives to fully understand our past.

I met with officials from the Austrian Council for Research and Technology Development, and the ambassador then hosted a dinner where I met with officials from a range of agencies and ministries and with the President of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The conversation ranged over many topics, from Karl Popper to where New Zealand and Austrian science could work closer together. I was delighted to learn that they knew of, and were very interested in, the experimental approach that the Liggins Institute has taken to bring science to school kids through the LENScience programme, and I promised to put them in direct contact with Jacquie Bay. One of the members of the Ministry was already following this blog site and it was only a week old!

We spent considerable time discussing the relationship between basic science and innovation. This was also a topic I had discussed earlier in my trip at the OECD. The relationship is far more complex than the linear approach that is often invoked by the science community, which seems to have fallen into a trap of presenting science and innovation as a linear system, perhaps thinking that it assists in promoting government investment. But that invites expectations and funding approaches that may be counterproductive. The reality is very different. One needs a critical mass of basic science for many reasons, and out of that emerges capabilities and capacities without which innovation is not possible. But to pretend that it is a straight line process from a given bit of basic research to product does neither science nor innovation any good. The ideas and the knowledge which do lead to science-led innovation come out of a critical mass of good basic science, and it is that which every advanced nation is seeking. The critical mass is essential, even (and especially) in small countries.

The deep intellectual history of Austria meant that their investment in basic science has been better sustained and indeed enhanced over the past decades. But while they are investing much more than we are, they too are seeking ways to both increase it and better harmonise their science system. They too face the challenge of getting an appropriate balance of a broad base of research and thematic focus.

Austria now has a total spend on R & D of about 2.6% of GDP, of which about 40% (0.9%) comes from the government, and they were concerned about how they were going to grow that to the 3% driven by the Lisbon Strategy of the EU. But a closer look at their private sector spend showed that it was driven by the activities of large multinational companies in the pharmaceuticals, energy, telecommunications and automotive areas—the advantage of being in Europe. If one takes those top ten companies out of the picture, then their private sector spend is closer to ours—they too are really a country of small and medium enterprises, but as a whole the centrality of knowledge to both their society and economy was readily apparent.

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