English biochemist and molecular biologist Sir Richard John Roberts FRS will script history on January 11 as the first Nobel laureate to grace the convocation ceremony of the Mumbai University. It will also be Roberts’ first trip to the city.
Roberts, who currently works at New England Biolabs, was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Phillip Allen Sharp for the discovery of introns in eukaryotic DNA and the mechanism of gene-splicing.
Known to be at the forefront for his activism, last month, Roberts wrote a letter addressed to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on behalf of a consortium of 121 Nobel Laureates, asking for release of medical scholar, Dr Ahmadreza Djalali, who was arrested while on an academic visit to Tehran in April 2016. “We now hear that his medical condition is declining rapidly and he is in hospital and in desperate need of the best possible medical care,” reads the letter. This was the third letter which followed the ones Roberts wrote in November, 2017, and February, 2018.
At the MU convocation, however, Roberts is expected to speak on the GMO (genetically modified organism) movement, of which he remains an ardent supporter.
Refuting claims of anti-GMO activists that the concept is inherently dangerous, Roberts says in an email interaction with The Indian Express: “GMOs are safer than traditionally bred crops. This is the point we are trying to get across and to get Greenpeace and other anti-GMO groups to acknowledge. They claim to believe in science, but apparently only when it suits their purpose.”
“While I and most of my Laureate friends deplore the way that big agro-business behaves in the commercial sector and especially their single-minded pursuit of making money, that is a completely separate issue from the safety and desirability of using GMO technology to breed better crops,” he adds.
On the issue of how GMOs can benefit the developing countries, Roberts says for most crop species, all significant plant breeding has been done by large companies looking for profits. Such profits are available for crops consumed in the developed countries, but not for those in the developing world.
“Because traditional breeding approaches are time-consuming and expensive, only big agro-businesses have been able to make the large investments needed to bring them to market. This has effectively prevented small businesses and particularly scientists in the developing countries from improving their local crops using traditional methods. However, the GM method is fast, highly accurate and much easier to implement than traditional approaches. This means that countries that rely on crops that are not a staple in the west can now easily improve their own crops for the benefit of their own populations,” he explains.
Apart from GMO movement, Roberts says he will talk to students about the need for activism, the importance of luck in life and stress that when luck arrives, it is important to take advantage of it. “I will use some autobiographical examples to show how luck can change one’s career,” he adds.
Sharing his thoughts on the usage of scientific advances, he says that throughout history, science has enabled new technologies that improve human life. However, the regulation of those technologies and how they should be used is really a matter for the whole of society, not just scientists. Companies will naturally leap on those technologies for profits, he says.
“This is the basis of capitalism. Without such companies exploiting technology we would not have automobiles, cell phones, television and the myriad other improvements in our lives. While I am sad that these benefits often leave great segments of the world behind, it is our policy makers who are responsible, not the scientists. We are very limited in what we can do. However, now is a time when the governments of the developing countries could do something that would be extremely beneficial for their populations,” he says.