Nursing a nuanced approach to making science work
Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse believes we need to take the longer view on innovation rather than focus on short-term gains
Fungal genetics wasn’t a particularly trendy field when he started building up his research, he recalls, but that gave him room to work away on the science.
“I was able to explore this area in a rather relaxed and therefore more creative way – I wasn’t looking over my shoulder all the time or thinking I was competing with this or that person,” he says.
“And because the yeast was a [relatively] simple organism I could work out the complexities of it. I put together the gene networks that controlled cell division in yeast and then went on to show that the same genes worked in humans as well to do the same thing.”
It took Nurse about 15 years to go from those initial forays in yeast genes through to Nobel Prize-winning insights about the “checkpoints” that human cells go through to help safeguard cell division, but the upshot was a better understanding of processes that can go awry in tumours.
“To understand cancer it’s important to know about the cell cycle and how it is controlled, and the therapies that are then built upon it rely on understanding that basic knowledge,” he says.
Nurse is still active in genetics research, and in general he would like to see more scientists talking publicly about what they do.
“It is very important that scientists speak up. I have little time for those of my colleagues who say [engaging with the media] is not worth doing and a waste of time,” Nurse says.
“Science is part of society and scientists have a responsibility to engage with society in all sorts of ways.”
He is currently chief executive and director of the planned Francis Crick Institute in central London, which he says will put a focus on giving resources to young biomedical researchers and taking the longer view.
“I think it is under-appreciated how difficult doing good science is and how long it takes to really understand something and to turn that understanding into useful application – it is a long process,” he says. “In the longer- and medium-term, you need to have a more hands-off approach and you need a culture that encourages high-quality discovery science across the board – and you don’t get that by being top-down.”
Sir Paul Nurse will give Academy Discourses on Making Science Work at Queen’s University, Belfast, on June 13th and the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin on June 14th. Tickets are free but booking is essential. See ria.ie for more details.