Ireland's future depends on science, says Nobel winner


INTERVIEW:IRELAND HAS the potential to make a lasting impression on world science and show that it can deliver a knowledge economy, according to Nobel prize winner James Watson.

Its very future depends on it, he believes. Dr Watson was speaking yesterday from his office in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Long Island, New York, prior to his arrival in Dublin.

He has agreed to participate in a number of events taking place from Wednesday at the start of the Euroscience Open Forum international science conference.

“This is my first Esof meeting,” said Dr Watson, who shared a 1962 Nobel Prize with Francis Crick for their discovery of the structure of the genetic code DNA.

“I think it is very important because of the major investment in science made by Ireland,” he said. “It is a statement that Ireland is going to stay this way.”

Esof 2012 is the largest science meeting of its kind in Europe and thousands of delegates and visitors will take part in scientific presentations and public engagement events during the conference, which runs from Wednesday to Sunday.

On Friday Dr Watson will deliver a master class organised by the Royal Irish Academy and The Irish Times.

The day before he does an “in conversation with” type interview with Trinity College immunologist Prof Luke O’Neill. On Thursday evening he takes part in an historic event where geneticist Dr Craig Venter will revisit the “What is Life” lectures given in Dublin in 1943 by Nobel winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger.

Dr Watson will then provide a response to Dr Venter’s presentation. Dr Watson would not be drawn on what he might say in his response.

Dr Venter played a controversial role during the international effort to sequence the human genome, stating that he would attempt to patent human genes, while most other scientists working on the genome wanted a free and complete release of genome data.

“I do not wish to raise controversy,” Dr Watson said. “When the genome was being sequenced Venter was the enemy. We couldn’t let him win. But in the end he made the genome effort run much faster so he made a major contribution.”

Dr Venter and his collaborators “did lots of important science”, Dr Watson added. “He was the first person whose genome was sequenced. I was the second.”

He believes the Esof meeting can leave a lasting impression. “The future of any country depends on whether it advances through knowledge. Some countries are commodity rich rather than knowledge rich,” he said.

He classed Ireland among the latter. “Ireland has world-class people. The main legacy left behind should be, Ireland has brains, use them.”

Dr Watson is a frequent and enthusiastic visitor to Ireland. “It is a welcome chance to get to Ireland again,” he laughed when asked why he was attending Esof for the first time.

“I have been following the weather and this is not the best weekend to be over but we will have a good time.”

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