Beutler joins elite group of scientists on national policy advisory forum

By Deborah Wormser

Many things impressed Dr. Bruce Beutler during his trip to Stockholm last year to accept the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, including the scientific literacy of the Swedish lawmakers who belong to the Swedish Society of Parliamentarians and Scientists, known as Rifo.

“They would meet frequently to discuss scientific issues so that certain members of Parliament who shared that general interest became quite literate in science. I thought this was an excellent idea that policymakers could meet regularly with scientists and see their view of the world,” recalled Dr. Beutler, Director of the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

He shared that thought with retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who mentioned the idea to National Academy of Sciences President Ralph Cicerone. Together, the two organized the first meeting of the nonpartisan Science, Technology, and Policy Forum, which was held in September in Washington, D.C. Ten senators attended that inaugural meeting, including Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Chair John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., and Sen. Hutchison, the ranking member of that Senate panel.

Sen. Hutchison thanked the National Academy of Sciences for bringing together the stellar group of 10 scientists, several of them Nobel Prize winners, for the forum’s first meeting.

“The topic of our first meeting was genomics and the revolution that’s taking place due to technological advances in DNA sequencing,” said Dr. Beutler, who spoke at the gathering. “The senators were very receptive to the discussion. The point that we tried to impress on them was that many discoveries that people used to speak of as happening in the future are actually taking place right now.

“Many Mendelian diseases (those caused by mutations in single genes) are being solved on a day-to-day basis. The driver mutations responsible for cancer are being found. Drug targets are emerging for genetic diseases, and there are numerous advances being made in agriculture as well,” he added.

The goal is to hold regular meetings in a format that will help the policymakers understand how scientists approach problems, while allowing the scientists to benefit from understanding how the lawmakers regard the issues they face, Dr. Beutler said.

The hope is that this new science advisory group will meet every few months to discuss different topics in basic science, biomedicine, engineering, and the physical sciences. The group’s next meeting likely will be on physics and will be held next spring, he said. Dr. Adam Reiss, who shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, also participates in the forum.

 “I do view it as the responsibility of scientists to speak to policymakers and at least give them the benefit of their viewpoints. If we remain mute, then we must admit we are partly responsible when policy is not to our liking,” Dr. Beutler said.

Nobel Laureate receives international honors

Nobel Laureate Dr. Bruce Beutler recently received two international recognitions for his scientific research.

On Nov. 12, French Ambassador to the United States François Delattre traveled to UT Southwestern to award Dr. Beutler the French Legion of Honor, France’s top public distinction. Dr. Beutler’s award was at the officer level, the same level of distinction awarded in September to former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney.

He also recently was elected to the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. Founded in 1652, it is the oldest continuously operating medical and science academy in the world. Dr. Johann Deisenhofer, 1988 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and Professor in the Cecil H. and Ida Green Center for Systems Biology and of Biophysics, also is a member.

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Dr. Deisenhofer holds the Virginia and Edward Linthicum Distinguished Chair in Biomolecular Science and is a Regental Professor.

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Dr. Beutler holds the Raymond and Ellen Willie Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research in Honor of Laverne and Raymond Willie, Sr. and is a Regental Professor.

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