THE EMBO MEETINg 2012
￼The humble artistry of the experiment
PAUL NURSE is President of the Royal Society and Director of the Francis Crick Institute in the United Kingdom. In 2001, together with Lee Hartwell and Tim Hunt, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of key regulators of
the cell cycle. At The 4th EMBO Meeting in Nice, France, he talked to Barry Whyte about science, society and his new venture, THE FRANCIS CRICK INSTITUTE.
In 2013, you will become Secretary General of EMBO? Why did you take on this role?
The European Molecular Biology Organization,
EMBO, was really important in my life first of all. I learned to clone and manipulate DNA very early on in a course in 1980 that was supported by EMBO. I have been grateful ever since because it transformed my research life. So whenever I am asked by EMBO to do something I do it if I am able to. I have chaired EMBO Council and I have been a Member of EMBO Council. I then left to go to the United States and I had a bit of break for the last eight years or so. When they asked me to become Secretary general I was really pleased to do it.
You mentioned the United States. What
was it like to do science in the US versus the United Kingdom?
That was really interesting because I had
never worked in the United States before. In fact, I had never spent more than one or two weeks in the US. And then suddenly I was over there running The Rockefeller University, a research institute of 2000 people. I had to learn a lot about how American society works and how, in particu- lar, American science works.
There are many similarities. We work for simi- lar values. We respect the same things. Science is truly international. It crosses cultural barri- ers much easier than other activities but there are also differences. In America, there is greater emphasis on the individual. If you have a good scientist they usually can attract good support and funding. There is perhaps less emphasis on working together in communal and societal ways to do science, because it is driven more by indi- viduals. That’s a difference.
What advice would you give to a young scientist?
If you are going to do scientific research you
have to be a complete enthusiast. You have to have a burning desire to want to know the answers. If you are only half-hearted it is such a long grind that you are not going to get through it. You also have to get satisfaction from small things
You are heavily involved in the Francis Crick Institute which will open in 2015. What are your plans for science at the institute?
The Francis Crick Institute is quite a compli-
cated venture. Its based on a merger between the Medical Research Council-funded National Institute of Medical Research in North London, which is run at the moment by Jim Smith, and
- from doing a good experiment - the humble the Cancer Research UK London Research
artistry of doing the experiment. You are never going to get these big discoveries occurring suffi- ciently frequently to keep you motivated. That’s only going to happen rarely.
Some statistics show that young investigators are receiving their first grant
in their 40s. What do you think of this situation?
Well I think it is very, very bad. It is also an
increasing trend in Europe. I had my first inde- pendent grant in my late 20s. It was completely different. I was already head of a department in Oxford at 39. It was much more accelerated. I think you need to support and promote young independent researchers as early as possible. We really have to identify good people when they are young, when they are most creative. We have to back them. And then we make a judgment and if they are not doing well you pull the money out. give them a chance. Let them get on with it.
We have had a great era of physics research, and a great era of molecular biology research, which is ongoing. What comes next?
I think for me it’s putting together molecular
biology with the thinking that comes from the physical sciences to get a better understanding of what life is and how it works. My own view, and I am a cell biologist, is that the focus that will yield first is understanding how the cell, the simplest unit of life, works. This is going to be shown by a combination of sophisticated molecular and cellular biology and combining it with the think- ing and techniques that will come from bioinfor- matics, physics, chemistry and from maths. We are going to see a much more multidisciplinary approach to scientific problems.
Institute, in central London and also in the outskirts, which is run by Richard Treisman. It is a big merger of preexisting institutes. What we are doing is taking the running money of these institutes and combining it with a little bit more, mainly from the Wellcome Trust, to set up this new institute. It is going to be a biomedical and biological research institute.
It will be a consortium of the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and three universities – University College London, Imperial College and King’s College - and that’s to drive the multidisciplinary agenda that biology needs in the coming decades.
Are you going to have major programme areas?
It is going to be large which is relevant to
your question. We will have 1300-1500 research- ers there. We can actually cover a wide range of programmes. Unlike most institutes, especially when they are formed, for example a stem cell institute or an immunology institute, we will cover all the bases. The philosophy behind it is to look for the best athlete, the best scientist, rather than to define the programme.
So you are thinking very much about the culture of this institute rather than the programme areas?
I think we completely underestimate the
importance of culture in producing good quality science. When people talk about scientific strate- gy they always think about what programmes can you set up? Programmes change and they change very rapidly. What does not change is the culture of the institute. Once you set the culture up it often lasts for many decades.
￼More of this interview is available on The EMBO Meeting YouTube channel www.youtube.com/user/ embomeeting
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