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Elizabeth Blackburn Wants the World to Work Together on Basic Science

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Elizabeth Blackburn. Credit: Rob Searcey.

AAAS Member Elizabeth Blackburn, a Nobel Laureate and biochemist, is best known for her work on telomeres — the protective caps on the end of DNA that are related to aging. Now, however, she is turning heads for a different reason — her leadership in calling for a global approach to scientific research.

To date, Blackburn, professor emerita at the University of California School of Medicine, has published an editorial in the Washington Post with a call to action for both scientists and the public to collaborate across national borders to advance human knowledge. She is also working with other scientists and officials of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings to draft an agreement on the topic, based on her idea, that could be adopted at the group's 2020 meeting, the Lindau Declaration 2020.

Blackburn’s motivation was informed by her experiences with her own work, seeing that basic science research can translate to universal new understandings of human health and well-being.

"We need to keep up a real, sustained investment in basic research. A lot of money gets put into trying to solve problems, but we have to keep doing basic, fundamental research, and we have to keep investing in it in a way that's not held haphazardly hostage to political winds, blowing one way or the other," she said.

Her call to action was "inspired" by the 2015 Paris Agreement, which identifies climate change as a global challenge and which was signed by 194 nations and the European Union. In her Washington Post editorial, Blackburn called the accord, which elicits pledges of collective actions from all its signatories, "an unprecedented achievement in global cooperation toward a shared and urgent goal, and a powerful example of what humanity can achieve through inclusive, careful negotiations conducted in good faith."

Other world events underscored Blackburn’s concern about the need for global support for scientists.

The United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union (Brexit) is "a perfect example" of what can happen when research is funded primarily by national or regional governments, she said. "The European Union funds a lot of basic research in Europe, including in the UK, and suddenly all of that is getting derailed because of the uncertainty of Brexit."

In the keynote speech she gave at the 2018 Lindau meeting, Blackburn argued for making "curiosity-driven" science a worldwide collaboration, and suggested that the Paris Agreement could serve as a template for world cooperation on scientific research. And she’s not finished. The Lindau Declaration 2020, Blackburn's own global agreement for a new approach to collaboration, is a work in progress, she said; everyone is invited to contribute ideas to its development through 2019. The declaration is expected to be adopted at the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting in June 2020.

The present draft sets out 10 goals: Cooperate globally on the pressing problems facing humanity; share knowledge; publish scientific results in an open access model; publish and securely archive ancillary data; maintain a standard of truthful and transparent work; restructure the reward system for scientists to reinforce the new goals; support talent worldwide and from all segments of society; communicate procedures and results to the public; engage scientists in education; and ensure global funding.

"It's the young scientists I'm really hoping will see the compelling case for having science as an internationally cooperative undertaking," Blackburn said. Under the Lindau plan, wealthy countries could contribute funds and resources to a global science initiative. "If you're a poor country, your resources would be human brilliance," talented individuals who in truth might not otherwise make the contribution they're capable of, she said.

Seeing young scientists from all over the world at past Lindau meetings has brought home to Blackburn that "there's human talent everywhere." In fact, diversity can pay real dividends in science, Blackburn said, "bringing different ways of thinking, life experience and culture to bear on complex problems."

Blackburn's own career and work have benefited from an international exchange of scientists and scientific knowledge. She grew up in Australia and was always curious about animals, an affinity that propelled her toward biology, she said. Blackburn studied biochemistry at the University of Melbourne. After graduation, she worked with Frank Hird, who helped train generations of Australian biochemists. Hird, who had studied in the United Kingdom, helped Blackburn travel to Cambridge to obtain her doctoral degree and to work with his mentor, the Nobel laureate Fred Sanger. It was at Cambridge where Blackburn met her husband, John Sedat. Her relationship led her to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. There, in the lab of Joseph Gall, her work on telomeres began.

Blackburn "didn't start life as a socially aware scientist," she said; her view of her role has "evolved." Being a Nobel laureate definitely gives her "a platform" not everyone has, she said. "I think seriously about how to deploy that."

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Delia O'Hara