A Nobel Winning Biologist Tells Us How Scientists Can Keep the Public's Trust
Venki Ramakrishnan also said the US could risk losing research and innovation power.
Venkatraman "Venki" Ramakrishnan won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009 for helping map the complete structure of ribosomes, the particles in living cells where proteins are synthesized. His work has helped, among other applications, support life-saving antibiotics.
Ramakrishnan, an Indian-born molecular biologist, is now based in the UK. He comes from a family of musicians and artists and is married to Vera Rosenberry, a children's book author. Since being awarded several of the highest honors in his field, Ramakrishnan has been vocal about the impact of science on politics, immigration and the future.
Motherboard sat down with Ramakrishnan at the annual meeting of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, one of the largest science conferences in the world, last week.
Whether it's CRISPR or CAS9, we've been talking about how the public needs to be involved in the debates in the scientific community. In what can seem like an anti-science environment given the current leadership in this country [the United States], how can this dialogue flourish?
At least in the UK, every poll shows that scientists are among the most trusted of all professions. Even higher than politicians and journalists. What scientists have to do is somehow justify maintaining that trust—that means public engagement, teaching people the importance of evidence based findings. I don't think scientists are less respected in the US, regardless of any people in the current administration. And those people might be cherry-picking data in the science. If you have something complicated like climate science, for example, it's always possible to find the one data that doesn't quite fit, so people latch onto that and use it to be skeptical. But most scientists would look at that overall picture at what the bulk of the data is telling us. And that's the consensus.
Given that, most likely, the US is going to scale back on immigration and visas, how will this impact the countries the scientists are coming from?
I think it would hurt both countries. It would hurt the US. A country like Britain has benefitted enormously from immigration, both from the EU and outside the EU. Three of the Royal Society presidents were not born in the UK. The US is even more so—the US is the single largest destination for science. It would hurt the economy, US innovation, and it would hurt the countries where the people are coming from. It would be shortsighted to do that. But I don't see that the government is doing that, yet.
You've spoken about antibiotic resistance in the past—do you see anyone taking the lede, and where the solutions could come from?
I talked about this at a panel in Davos two years ago. Since then, the UK government commissioned a report called the O'Neill report after [economist] Jim O'Neill. It points out a lot of reasons for resistance, the public health measures you can take. Despite those measures, you need antibiotics. If you have an infectious disease and you develop a new antibiotic, they will only give it to those who are resistant to current antibiotics. If the antibiotic is effective and two weeks later they're cured, you don't have a lifelong customer. The profit motive in infectious disease development is not working, so there have been few classes of new antibiotics. People forget that penicillin was not developed by a private company, it was a dedicated effort by the British government in World War II. Why do we think suddenly that only the private market can develop antibiotics? We need to look at different models.
Mark Zuckerberg has said he wants to "cure all disease" in the next few decades. What role do you think tech companies and Silicon Valley have in science?
They have money, research takes money. If they're willing to spend their money on people exchanging gossip and photographs [on platforms like Instagram and Facebook], and they want to do something good with it, I'm all for it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.