This document is a summary review of Biophysics capability in the UK conducted by the British Biophysical Society in response to the EPSRC Balancing Capability call 2016.

A pdf version is available for download.

Background

  • The BBS was founded in 1960 to promote the application of physical and chemical concepts to biological systems.
  • Our biennial meeting is the largest national meeting of the UK biophysics community.
  • We represent a membership of approximately 450 UK researchers. We foster new and emerging biophysics talent in the UK, with awards and student bursaries.
  • We represent UK biophysics as the adhering society to the European (ebsa.org) and international (iupab.org) biophysics unions.
  • We actively support diversity, with equal gender proportions in the elections of our distinguished Honorary members, a body that includes Nobel Laureates, since 2009.
  • The American Biophysical Society produced an excellent summary of biophysics and its current societal importance (bit.ly/20GgRW4) from which the following is extracted :

What is Biophysics? Spanning the distance between the complexity of life and the simplicity of physical laws is the challenge of biophysics. Looking for the patterns in life and analyzing them with math and physics is a powerful way to gain insights.

What are the applications? Biophysics is a wellspring of innovation for our high-tech economy. The applications of biophysics depend on society’s needs. In the 20th century, great progress was made in treating disease. Biophysics helped create powerful vaccines against infectious diseases. It described and controlled diseases of metabolism, such as diabetes. And biophysics provided both the tools and the understanding for treating the diseases of growth known as cancers. Today we are learning more about the biology of health and society is deeply concerned about the health of our planet. Biophysical methods are increasingly used to serve everyday needs, from forensic science to bioremediation.

Biophysics gives us medical imaging technologies including MRI, CAT scans, PET scans, and sonograms for diagnosing diseases. It provides the life-saving treatment methods of kidney dialysis, radiation therapy, cardiac defibrillators, and pacemakers. Biophysicists invented instruments for detecting, purifying, imaging, and manipulating chemicals and materials.

Advanced biophysical research instruments are the daily workhorses of drug development in the world’s pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. Since the 1970’s, more than 1500 biotechnology companies, employing 200,000 people, have earned more than $60 billion per year.

Current Importance? Society is facing physical and biological problems of global proportions. How will we continue to get sufficient energy? How can we feed the world’s population? How do we remediate global warming? How do we preserve biological diversity? How do we secure clean and plentiful water? These are crises that require scientific insight and innovation. Biophysics provides that insight and technologies for meeting these challenges, based on the principles of physics and the mechanisms of biology. Biophysics discovers how to modify microorganisms for biofuel (replacing gasoline and diesel fuel) and bioelectricity (replacing petroleum products and coal for producing electricity). Biophysics discovers the biological cycles of heat, light, water, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, heat, and organisms throughout our planet. Biophysics harnesses microorganisms to clean our water and to produce lifesaving drugs.

Evidence of Research Quality

  • The combined 19th International Union of Pure and Applied Biophysics (IUPAB) and the 11th European Biophysical Societies Association (EBSA) Congress will come to the UK in July 2017 (iupab2017.org). This meeting is jointly organised by the British Biophysical Society (BBS) and the Institute of Physics (IoP). Two Nobel Laureates will present plenary lectures and close to 2000 participants are expected.
  • The BBS biennial meeting is the largest national meeting of the UK biophysics community (bbs2016.co.uk). This 3-day meeting attracts both international and UK researchers across the biological and physical sciences.
  • The BBS also organises a range of smaller more frequent meetings, many in collaboration with other European National Biophysical Societies.
  • The IoP Biological Physics Subgroup, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) Biological Chemistry Interface and to a lesser extent the Royal Society of Biology and the Biochemical Society also are active in organising a range of repeating meetings in this area. There are strong and effective interactions between the RSC, IoP, the Biochemical Society, and BBS in this area.
  • These societies also run a range of well-supported meetings in this area, e.g. the IoP biannual 3-day meeting “Physics Meets Biology” (pmb2016.iopconfs.org).
  • We coordinate the work of biophysicists in the UK through our active newsgroup and website (britishbiophysics.org.uk). We also provide a quarterly newsletter disseminating information to the community. Our newsgroup reaches ~800 researchers.
  • The importance and strength of UK research quality in this area was highlighted in the recent International Biophysics Week (bit.ly/1Z2K3WO), during which the UK provided the largest number of organised events in the world.
  • The recent Nurse Review of the UK research councils (bit.ly/1X0qu4t) highlighted interdisciplinary research such as biophysics as a key component of future research strategy.
  • High profile publications, including Nature and Science, have a regular and specific focus on biophysical research. (nature.com/subjects/biophysics).
  • The EPSRC Physics of Life network (org.uk) produced a recent summary of its impact and overall UK research quality.

Evidence of National Importance

  • The EPSRC identified Biophysics as playing a vital role in economic and societal developments (epsrc.ac.uk/..).
  • Biophysics (Physics/Life Sciences) was identified by the 2005 EPSRC /PPARC/IoP/RAS International Perceptions of UK Research in Physics and Astronomy Review as being a key interface where growth in the UK was required (epsrc.ac.uk/..).
  • Based on our preparations for IUPAB-EBSA 2017, we can identify the following areas of rapid development:
    • Simultaneous and hybrid methodology including multi-resolution approaches.
    • Advances in light and electron microscopy.
    • Single molecule biophysics.
    • Biological applications of mass spectrometry.
    • Self-organising complexes.
    • Protein folding, protein aggregation and amyloid disease.
    • Biophysics of real and model membranes and biofilms.
    • Biophysics at the therapeutic stem cell interface.
    • Combatting antimicrobial resistance.
    • Healthy ageing.
    • Quantum biology.
    • Time-resolved structural biology.
    • Structural bioinformatics: towards the virtual cell.
  • Biophysics depends on strong interactions with Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Biochemistry and Bioengineering.
  • Biophysics is a cornerstone for industrial applications involving: fabrication of new materials & bioengineering; new pharmaceuticals, diagnostics and technologies. The industries that most immediately benefit from the impact of biophysics are pharmaceutical, healthcare providers, biofuels, analytical services and instrument manufacturers.

Evidence of Capacity

  • Between the BBS (450), IoP Biological Physics Subgroup (534), and RSC Chemical Biology Interface Division (4331) there are over five thousand active UK researchers in this interdisciplinary area.
  • We estimate that there are 400-500 PhD students in this field in the UK. Students go on to a wide range of employment, benefitting from their strong interdisciplinary background. Approximately 50% continue in postdoctoral positions as a first destination. Others are employed in a wide range of occupations, including biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies across the size spectrum (startup, SME, multinational). Others take up alternative careers including those in government, finance, patent law, teaching, and as entrepreneurs.
  • This field is expanding in the UK, with University academic departments shifting from posts in traditional subjects to more interdisciplinary areas. This is evidenced by the range and specialties of new academic hires in the UK.

Emerging Opportunities

  • Significant and increasing funding is being directed into biological sciences by RCUK and charities (e.g. The Francis Crick Institute). This activity would benefit from stronger interactions with physical scientists.
  • Biophysics is at its best when it can both develop new tools, technologies, and analytical approaches, and then provides rapid application of these tools to biology. Close proximity and interactions across disciplines is essential.
  • EPSRC funding of biophysics is surprisingly low; most funding in this area comes from other sources (ERC, BBSRC, Leverhulme, HFSP, The Wellcome Trust). Exceptions come from those of us engaged in instrument development (e.g. microscopes, or devices for medical use).
  • Structures that sustain our diverse community would be very welcome, e.g. a CDT-type program spread out over the UK, or a similar network of research fellows.
  • Biophysics falls through the gaps between the remits of the different research councils. This is a longstanding problem (over decades) that still has not been properly addressed. This is not a problem for our international competitors. We suggest that peer review inflexibility and programme managers with backgrounds in more traditional disciplines are two factors to consider.
  • Given the key role played by Biophysics in achieving the strategic aims of the EPSRC, it is notable that it (together with Soft Matter Physics) amounts to only 0.64% of the EPSRC portfolio (http://bit.ly/1TLbyk0), significantly below other research themes. It is also notable that Biophysics is merged with Soft Matter Physics, two very distinct disciplines.
  • Biophysics is not just structural biology. Investments such as Diamond (£50M pa), and commitments to ESRF/ILL/ISIS overlap with only a small sector of this discipline and its potential impact.
  • Our key request is for EPSRC to understand the nature of research in our area, which unfortunately too often falls outwith the remit of any one research council. Biophysics is not a core component of the EPSRC portfolio. Given its potential and proven successes in addressing the strategic priorities of the EPSRC, this should be remedied.

This report was prepared by the BBS committee.

  • Dr Svetlana Antonyuk (Liverliool)
  • Dr Tharin Blumenschein (UEA) (BBS Secretary)
  • Dr Olwyn Byron (Glasgow)
  • Dr Robert Cooke (Helitares Theralieutics)
  • Dr C Jeremy Craven (Sheffield)
  • Dr Guy Grant (Bedfordshire)
  • Prof Syma Khalid (Southamliton)
  • Dr Tuomas Knowles (Cambridge)
  • Prof Mark C. Leake (York)
  • Prof Robin Leatherbarrow (Liverliool John Moores)
  • Prof Gordon C K Roberts (Leicester)
  • Dr John Sanderson (Durham)
  • Prof David Scott (Nottingham)
  • Prof John Seddon (ICL)
  • Prof Dave Sheehan (Cork)
  • Prof Mark I. Wallace (KCL) (Working Grouli Chair)
  • Prof Anthony Watts (Oxford) (BBS Chair)