Leading biotechnologists from Europe and across the world gathered at the 16th European Congress on Biotechnology from 13 to 16 July in Edinburgh (Scotland), to discuss the latest trends and developments in the field. Calum MacKichan, who is publications officer at the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO), attended the Congress. 

In the opening keynote speech, Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the European Commission and a Scottish native, issued a rallying call to European biotechnologists as she underlined our role in European society and encouraged us to be bolder in communicating our research. It was the perfect start to the next three days of stimulating talks and discussion.

A central discussion focused on Europe’s bio-economy strategy, a long-term vision of sustainable development based on renewable resources. In 2020 it is estimated that the bio-based products market in Europe will be worth €200 billion a year and €530 billion globally.

We were warned that the success of biotechnology will only be judged by the success of the bio-economy. A number of speakers urged Europe to focus more on bio-based chemicals, a message reinforced by impressive plenary talks that demonstrated how microbes and bio-refineries can be used to produce high-value chemicals.

An evening debate on antibiotic resistance was free to the general public and generated much interest. Paul Hoskisson took us on a history lesson from the dark ages, when the only method to prevent bacterial infections was to wash your hands, through the ‘golden era’ of antibiotic discovery in the last century, and back to the point where our best defence may be hand-washing again. “Antibiotic resistance is certain, like death and taxes”, he said. For the public it is a difficult reality.

Despite this problem, few pharmaceutical companies are interested in the development of novel antibiotics for economic reasons. Solutions to this problem may include longer patents, bulk buying of novel antibiotics, selling them as expensive specialist drugs, and reducing clinical trial costs.

Parallels were drawn between antibiotic resistance and climate change: they are both natural processes that have global significance, and need preventative action. It was proposed that antibiotic resistance may need an equivalent to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 

After such a rich session it was encouraging to see bright young scientists talk about developing new antibiotic strategies the next morning!

A discussion on responsible research and innovation took a wider perspective. Social scientists, research funders and scientists from academia and industry debated how to manage the collective stewardship of research in the present, to ensure the safety of research in the future. Anticipating future problems is very challenging and we need robust structures to decide what is responsible, and at the same make sure we do not stifle research.

The discussion underlined that in a world where culture, demographics and environment are all changing, science has no monopoly on solving these problems. However, biotechnology will play a critical role for all of us. 

There will be much to discuss at the next edition in Krakow, Poland, in 2016.