Q&A with Arnold Thackray, President & CEO of the Life Sciences Foundation

December 14, 2011

Arnold ThackrayQ: What is the mission of the Life Sciences Foundation?

A: The Life Sciences Foundation has been established to record, preserve and make known the story of biotechnology — that complex mixture of brilliant science, daring entrepreneurship and socio-political reality that has become central to human hope in the new millennium. The foundation aims to collect and curate the historical record, enrich it through research and publication, and share it with institutions and organizations engaged in education, heritage or public policy.

Q: Why do you think it’s so important to tell the story of biotechnology?

A: It’s one of the great hidden stories of our age. We’re all so oriented toward tomorrow, but history is a vehicle to provide the public with a broad understanding – giving them a sense of how science, technology and innovation can improve human life. History has to be made by historians; everything else that happens is just stuff. If we’re going to create the history of biotechnology, enriching it with documents and records, the time is now.

Q: What do you think today’s biotech workforce can learn from some of the industry’s pioneers?

A: Often, researchers and developers are very narrowly focused on their goal at hand: We’re offering a broader understanding of the national and increasingly global story of biotechnology. Looking back is a means of understanding the present and acquiring wisdom with which to move forward. Our goal is to disseminate the lessons of the past, and kindle the spirit of enterprise in young people.

Q: What are some of the methods in which you have been gathering archival materials?

A: We are actively gathering archival materials in cooperation with leading research universities and libraries. Also central to our mission is an oral history initiative. Our researchers are conducting interviews with biotech pioneers in order to capture the history of the field from the perspectives of those who made it. We have also taken a complete inventory of existing oral histories with life scientists, industrialists, financiers and public officials who have made significant contributions to biotechnical progress.

Q: What role can MassBio members play in helping you achieve your mission?

A: We are currently exploring how to develop our physical presence on the East Coast and have already announced the formation of the New England chapter. The chapter will be guided by a steering committee of industry leaders: Joshua Boger, Robert Carpenter, Bob Coughlin, Henri Termeer and Peter Wirth. The group will spread the word about the foundation, bring scientists and industrialists together to share their stories about the remarkable history of biotechnology in Boston and the surrounding region and develop the archival record. We invite all MassBio members to point us towards particular stories, materials, archives or people to talk to and help us navigate this dense territory.

The Life Sciences Foundation is a non-profit organization, headquartered in San Francisco. Its board members are drawn from among industry leaders in biotechnology and life sciences, academic colleagues and associated non-profits. For more information, visit www.biotechhistory.org. To sign up for the foundation’s monthly newsletter or to contribute archival materials or ideas, email Arnold Thackray at arnold@biotechhistory.org.


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