Crick Questions: Sir Paul Nurse

Paul Nurse

Sir Paul Nurse tells Tom Ireland about how the UK must overcome 'the UKIP factor' to attract the best overseas scientists, plus his plans for London's new 'superlab', the Francis Crick Institute

The Biologist 61(6) p32-35

Sir Paul Nurse is president of the Royal Society and a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist. For the past four years, he has been director of the Francis Crick Institute, an ambitious new 'super-lab' rising up into the skyline of London's King's Cross. Due to open in 2015, the institute will be the biggest biomedical research centre in the world, employing 1,250 scientists with an annual budget of over £100m. Sir Paul hopes it will attract the best mathematicians, chemists, physicists and biologists from around the world.

What was the idea behind the Francis Crick Institute?

Just after the turn of the millennium, I suggested that the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) could be merged with Cancer Research's London Research Institute and put in the Millennium Dome, which at the time nobody knew what to do with. That was a really stupid idea. But the idea of merging the institutes wasn't.

Then there was talk of merging NIMR with University College London, and then we engaged other universities – King's College and Imperial – and that's how it sort of grew.

When you're in a discovery research institute looking at how living things work, you can't easily predict whether what you are doing may or may not be relevant to a whole range of diseases. So part of the concept was an institute that covers all diseases potentially, and the bigger it is the better the chance you can capture stuff that will be relevant somewhere. If it's large, you can recruit based on the quality of people not just, say, stem cell people because you've got a stem cell institute. And it's easier to change what the institute does – because institutes go stale and if you're big enough, you can constantly rejuvenate.

Also the idea was to have an emphasis on youth and training. We will have young group leaders who will have a career there of 10 to 12 years, then we help them move on.

Does the increase in anti-immigration rhetoric in UK politics jeopardise the project?

No, because we've got such a high profile on the world stage, I think we will be able to attract people who might not be attracted to other places in the UK. I don't worry about whether they will get visas, but there is a lot of banging of drums and 'the UKIP factor' for the Conservative party, which means there is constant sniping about immigration that rubs off on even the highest qualified people coming here. But I honestly think that the Crick has really caught the imagination of people around the world and it's not going to be an issue.

Do you think cancer can be cured?

No, I don't. We will get to a point where we manage it more effectively.

We should aim to reduce the fear of getting cancer, but its very nature means I don't think we'll eliminate it.

We can avoid some cancers caused by environmental challenges such as tobacco use and so on, but just being alive generates the damage to DNA that ultimately causes cancer. If we can spot it earlier and find new ways to manage it, like modifying the immune system, we have a reasonable chance over a few decades of reducing the mortality and therefore the fear of the disease.

You've said that you wished scientific leaders were more vocal in counteracting pseudo-science and misleading political rhetoric. How do scientists do this in an age where misinformation can become extremely widely read via social media?

You keep plugging away. Most people around the world look to the UK as a reasonable place in terms of the way the Government handles science. I lived in the US for a while, where you get quite ridiculous opinions. Over here, if you spend time with politicians and take care to explain how things are, they will listen and do change their minds.

I think the subjects that remain issues are GM, vaccinations, stem cells – whether something is alive or dead – and climate change. In something like climate change, you have almost all the scientists in the same place, and actually most people in the same place. But you have vocal and often rather aggressive individuals who mix up the science and the politics. They are so worried about us all having to make global decisions on the economy that they try to undermine the science. I'm pretty intolerant of that. You get the science right, then you can have a political discussion – do we care or not? People could discuss it like that rather than undermining the science.

There are still a lot of myths around what GM actually means – in the late 1990s, one of the main issues brought up by the public was that they didn't want to eat food 'with genes in it'. That isn't a debate that a scientist would ever have thought of, proving it is important to have a proper dialogue to find what exactly people's concerns are.

Any time scientists spend engaging with the public is time well spent.

So you would like to see more public engagement as part of scientists' role?

I think it should be given the proper respect that it is due. A lot of my colleagues just snipe at the media and don't realise it is tremendously difficult to do. I'm full of admiration for people who do it well. People nit-pick when you get a word wrong, but you've got 10 seconds to say something and there's a damn lens in your face and all these lights are on... it's terribly, terribly hard.

Just two of the Royal Society's 43 university research fellowships were awarded to women this year. Why?

I've been looking again at the numbers and there isn't such a significant change as first appeared because we have various other schemes, such as the Dorothy Hodgkin and Sir Henry Dale fellowships, which have much higher percentages of women. However, there are still issues that we need to address and that's why I've set up a group to look at this in more detail.

The fact you were getting so few applications from women suggests a wider problem in science. Do you think this is caused by the way scientific careers are structured or is it an inherent sexism among those doing the appointing?

When I was younger, there was an inherent sexism. It still probably exists in places, but is much reduced. We are still left with the problems related to having children, which is very demanding, and career breaks are very difficult in science. The other issue is this constant pressure to justify your work, this pressure to perform, isn't everybody's cup of tea.

I am thinking about certain things at the Crick Institute that will help. There can be a difficult period for the first several years after a woman has children and I'm thinking of launching a part-time career position where, instead of running a group of five or six people, you run a group of two or three, and women could continue research in that way. At the Crick, we can provide that protection, and take on all their admin and managerial stuff, too. But it's more difficult in more conventional institutions, or when the person is teaching.

Do you still have time for research?

Yes. I work on the model organism fission yeast as I have done for 40 years. I'm taking synthetic and systems biology approaches to global cellular controls – that is, looking at the whole cell, particularly the cell cycle and cell shape, which are my areas of interest. Rather than get bogged down in detailed molecular descriptions of everything, I'm asking bigger questions like 'how does a cell know how big it is?', which has always fascinated me.

Your recent discovery about your parents is a remarkable story. Have you made much progress finding your father? [Sir Paul discovered in his 50s that the woman he thought was his sister was his biological mother. His parents were his biological grandparents who hid the pregnancy and raised him as their son].

Yes, it's a remarkable story. I'm the biggest bastard... [laughs]. No, I haven't found out much yet. I'm a geneticist so sooner or later I'll get myself sequenced so that might tell us a bit. But you've got to have someone to analyse it and I'm not quite up to that. But I would be interested.

Why did you decide to be so public about it?

The first reason wouldn't be an issue today, but it was when I was born. It was a big shame for my biological mother. She's been dead for a number of years and I owe it to her to talk about it to show there isn't any shame in it. The other reason was that various biographical statements and introductions about me were wrong.

Everyone who has worked with you has told me you're a really nice guy. Do you think it is important to be personable as a scientist?

Science is tough. People's experiments are failing all the time and we have a responsibility to look after each other. I do try to do that. We need a supportive environment so it's important to be nice to each other. Also it is very important in science to disagree, to argue, but you don't do it in a way where you attack the individual: you attack their ideas.

If you were choosing an undergraduate degree now, what would you study?

I still think I would go into biology. Originally I was torn between biology and English, and then I went towards ecology, but I found it so uncontrollable – and I didn't like getting cold wet feet early in the morning and not finding anything. So I retreated to the lab.

I am an amateur astronomer. I wouldn't like to do astronomy research, but I do enjoy it. I have a telescope on the balcony here.

Professor Sir Paul Nurse Hon FSB is president of the Royal Society and a geneticist who works on what controls the division and shape of cells. He was professor of microbiology at the University of Oxford, chief executive of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and Cancer Research UK and president of Rockefeller University, New York. He is currently director and chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001 for his work on the cell cycle of fission yeast.