Interview: Sir Paul Nurse

The Nobel Laureate discusses new Institutes, his aims for women in labs, and post-Brexit hopes

Source: Fiona Hanson/AP Images

Professor Sir Paul Nurse is possibly the biggest name in British science. Since jointly winning the 2001 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for research into the mechanism of cellular division, he has placed his name alongside Wren and Newton as ex-President of the Royal Society (and his face, too, with a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery). He has just established The Francis Crick Institute, a multimillion-pound research facility set to become the forerunner in British research, for which he is Chief Executive and Director. He took time from talking to the Lancet and BBC to speak to Cherwell about the true implications of being a Nobel Laureate, his vision for the Crick Institute, and Brexit damage-limitation.

What’s the secret to good research?

Luck is really critical. It is very helpful to be working with something that the rest of the world has yet to recognise is important; following the crowd is probably not a good idea. And you do have to be pretty rigorous and high quality in your thinking and in your experiments.

I did my work on yeasts quite a long time ago, doing most of the work in the 1970s and 1980s. I was interested in what controls the reproduction of cells, the division of one into two. I took a genetic approach and that’s why I used yeast, a simple single celled organism, so the genetic investigation was relatively straight forward. I looked at genes that controlled the rate at which cells divided and that identified a small subset which advance cells prematurely through the cell cycle. My group worked out how those genes worked—they encoded a key protein kinase called cyclin dependent kinase—and then we showed that the same gene was present in humans.

How did being awarded the Noble Prize affect your life and work?

Well you end up with an extra job. Everyone asks you to open things and pronounce on things that you know nothing about, or just to be there like a table decoration, and this can all be hugely distracting. There’s a danger there because Noble laureates are no different before and after, but suddenly people think you’ve got sensible things to say about almost anything, which obviously we don’t. It doesn’t really help you very much in practical terms with doing your research, but it certainly means you become a public figure.

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You’ve just set up the Francis Crick Institute in London. What are your visions for this?

There were several research institutes within London already which were in very poor laboratories and they all needed somewhere to go. What I proposed is that we put them all together in one building so we got a bigger critical mass that would allow us to take a somewhat different approach to research. We wouldn’t have to divide ourselves up into divisions or departments; every group would be responsible for its own research and we wouldn’t be establishing barriers through departments, which is more typical in universities.  And because it’s large, we can recruit the best people we can find across the board because we are fishing from a bigger lake.

Before this you were President of the Royal Society. What did that role involve?

There is a partly figurehead role—it’s an unpaid position, for example—but actually it’s really important for public policy about science and scientific issues more generally because the Royal Society is the academy for science in the UK. The Royal Society is the main body which delivers advice on issues about scientific advice for policy or, for that matter, policy for science. So as President I had to be ultimately responsible for ensuring that was good advice.

What can we do to level the gender balance in science?

Science is a broad base. Undergraduates in the life sciences will be more than 50 percent female—indeed we now have to worry a bit about gender balance the other way in those areas—but in the physical sciences it’s still significantly lower than that. There’s clearly an issue in the school pipeline on physical sciences which has been solved in the life sciences. But probably what you’re more referring to is the very significant drop-off of women in senior positions.

One can be very theoretical about these things or we can try to be practical. We have to consider how we can best support young women who are giving birth to children and looking after them in the first couple of years of their lives. If we can get them through those five or seven years I think we won’t see the same fall-off, because up until that point women hold their own, at least in life sciences. So my answer, and we’ll be doing this at the Crick, [because] we core fund the research, is to be very, very supportive of those going through that phase of child rearing by having genuine part-time appointments where somebody can work half-time and is judged by half-time work. (Normally what happens is that even if it is agreed they are still judged by different criteria.) Then they can come back again as their children get a little older and that will allow us to maintain that pool of talent from women into an older age. People like me have got to deliver a work place and environment which allows them to get through that difficult time.

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You have been vocal about your views on Brexit from a scientific perspective. What should now be done?

I think Brexit is bad for British science. Nearly 90 per cent of scientists thought Brexit was a bad thing. Science (and, for that matter, most intellectual and academic endeavour) is built on openness, exchanges of people, a more outward looking country, and culture and those are not the feelings that have motivated the Brexit campaign.

Then there are more practical issues: we get more money for science from the EU than we put into science, so that gives us a hole in our annual budget of 500 million pounds that the government has got to find for science. Will it do that?

We are also limiting ourselves by having less access to the pool of talent Europe provides. We’ve somehow got to remain open and welcoming to that high quality population that is necessary to drive research and, for that matter, scholarly endeavour across all subjects.

I had a personal letter from Prime Minister Theresa May a couple of months ago saying she recognised these are important issues and communicating that science was critical in thinking about how to deal with Brexit. The statement is promising; it shows that it’s on their agenda. Now we have to make it really important for them so that they engage with us properly and so that we can continue to be the powerhouse in science that we are at the moment.