Society of Biology – The First Months

Dr Mark Downs PhD FSB
Chief Executive, Society of Biology
As most readers will be aware, the Society of Biology formally came into existence
on 1 October 2009 following the unification of the Biosciences Federation and the
Institute of Biology. Although we plan to build on the heritage of these two important
bodies it is important for all of us to see the Society as a new organisation with a
different outlook and approach to its organisational parents. For the first time we
have one body to represent the interests of all biologists in the UK creating a single
powerful voice to advise and inform Governments and make a difference. That
aspiration can only be realised if we are a nimble organisation, quick to respond to
opportunities, capable of learning from our mistakes and willing to work in
partnership. We also need to be truly proactive to really drive the policy agenda.  
At the time of reading this article we will be less than six months old and there will still
be plenty of opportunity to shape the way we work. But, to do that we need to
understand what matters to our members, how you will judge if we are delivering for
you and how best to involve you. Any member of the team here would be delighted to
hear your thoughts and, as the newest recruit, I am particularly keen to learn about
the way your organisation would like to be represented by us.
The Society of Biology is a single unified voice for biology:
advising Government and influencing policy;  
advancing education and professional development;  
supporting our members,  
and engaging and encouraging public interest in the life sciences.))
The Society now has over 70 Organisational Members and nearly 12,000 individual
members. This represents 80,000 biologists, giving us the legitimacy to speak with
authority in all our work.
Our Council have identified four priority areas for 2010:
Firstly, practical biology.  No matter which biological discipline undergraduates or
postgraduates follow there needs to be the opportunity to practise science at the
bench or in the field. It is simply not tenable to expand undergraduate science
education without additional resource to facilitate hands-on experience of designing
real experiments and interpreting the results. As Keith Gull, Professor of Molecular
Biology at Oxford University and Council member of the Society of Biology said in a
recent interview to the Standard, responding to Lord Mandelson’s announcement on
spending cuts, “A perfect Storm is gathering. Our next generation of scientists will
need to look very carefully at the quality of degrees on offer. If we want top scientists
– to innovate, to find out fundamental truths and to get us out of recession – this is
simply not good enough.” (sic). There has to be the resource to properly fund
practical biology both in schools and in the higher education sector. We will be
pushing this message at every opportunity, especially in the run up to the election.
Secondly, the impact of biology, a central theme in the recent consultation on the
Research Excellence Framework. Most biologists accept that the public have a right
to know that the money they spend on research is being spent wisely. Its impact on
our economy, health care system, environment and society is important to recognise.
But it has to be a sophisticated measurement. We plan to build on existing work and
present a consistent and clear case around the impact of biology from blue sky
research to the most applied. Case studies will be an important part of that. If you
have data or views to share please email me at
Thirdly, we will continue to work on a pilot accreditation programme to report back
to the Office for Life Sciences. The Government has asked us to look at ways in
which some biological science degrees can be accredited to give greater confidence
to students and employers that they provide the solid grounding needed for
employment.  There is no doubt that the topic arouses strong views. The academic
community doesn’t want to be forced into a corner with no room for innovation in their
degree programmes or to become a surrogate for technical training programmes,
whilst industry bemoans the lack of hands-on laboratory skills of many graduates. I
am convinced there is a route to delivery of a solution that meets the needs of both
camps. A lot rests with the terminology used. Any accreditation programme we take
forward will benefit from wider consultation and will certainly not be compulsory. It is
likely to focus on core requirements for biological science courses to be accredited,
such as numerical content, experimental design, opportunity for hands-on
experimentation and intellectual rigour. It is certainly not about accrediting individuals
or asking for coverage of specific training tasks or a defined list of techniques. For
sure, biology is more diverse than chemistry or engineering, but by starting in specific
areas real benefit can accrue, along with experience. To find out more visit
Finally, we will of course be talking to all the parties in the run up to the General
Election, forcing them to focus on their science agenda and representing the
interests of biology, raising its profile and using our work on “impact “ to argue for
The Society will also be working on many wider education, science policy and public
understanding of science issues and, of course, trying to evolve new services to
benefit our members. We welcome your suggestions for the Society.

January 11, 2010