Few scientists can claim as complete a history with genomics as Robert Wells, newly installed president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Now the director of the Center for Genome Research at Texas A&M University, Wells began his career in the early ’60s as a postdoc at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He was part of the team studying the genetic code, he says, and that “started my love for genomics.”
As president of FASEB, an organization of 22 biomedical societies with some 66,000 members, his voice will no doubt be heard. Under his stewardship, he says, FASEB will make the NIH budget its first priority, hoping to get a 10 percent increase for 2003 and 2004. He’ll pay attention to the NSF as well, hoping to double that budget over the next five years. Meanwhile, he’ll also focus on building alliances with other scientific societies and making sure scientific concerns — about issues varying from visa problems to stem cell research to keeping a copyright for scientific publications — are addressed.
Wells’ interest in public policy began fairly early in his scientific career. He realized the need to get involved in science policy and public affairs. “Up until approximately the early ’80s many scientists had the wrong impression that because they were doing such great things the federal government was going to fund them forever and ever and was going to fund them in a very handsome way,” he says. “In fact we needed to be much more involved with congressmen who were making decisions about funding matters.” To that end, he spent years as a member of various scientific societies, meeting with legislators and keeping policy at the front of his agenda.
In all of his scientific appointments, which continue to this day — as professor at Wisconsin until 1980, biochemistry department chairman at the University of Alabama until 1990, and his post since then at Texas A&M — Wells, now 64, has focused his lab on structural issues of genomics, studying in particular triplet repeat sequences and unusual things like left-handed DNA.
Wells, who runs his Texas lab while commuting every other week to the DC area for FASEB work, was voted to his post by the approximately 40 people on FASEB’s board of directors. “Depending on what day it is, some people congratulate me and some people convey their condolences,” he jokes.
— Meredith Salisbury