How do you turn a scientific discovery into something that has an impact on society – maybe it opens up a new way to treat a disease, perhaps it underpins a technology that makes everyday life easier or it might fuel a more efficient way to harness energy.
Sir Paul Nurse has some strong ideas about how to drive that transition from lab to life, and they don't involve too many short-term goals.
The Nobel laureate, who will be in Belfast and Dublin later this week to deliver the Royal Irish Academy discourse on Making Science Work, argues for a nuanced approach to innovation that looks to the horizon as well as more immediate returns.
Funding science along a spectrum
"You need science, you need research to drive innovation that will produce applications and economic growth, and science should be part of industrial and economic growth strategy," says London-based Nurse, who is a geneticist and the president of the Royal Society.
“But you have to be rather sophisticated about the way that you manage the support of science. You need to have discovery research, you need to have translational research and you need to have research close to application, and the way you manage it will vary according to where you are on the spectrum.
“Some research is blue-sky or discovery research and trying to control that is usually a waste of time. But where research is very close to application, it makes perfect sense to be more directed from the top down.”
But problems can arise, according to Nurse, when there’s too much focus on the short term and top-down approach, because it can wring creativity out of the equation.
“It’s perfectly legitimate to worry about jobs, but you need to have an environment that allows scientific creativity to prosper, and being too directed towards particular goals is not always the best way to create that environment,” he says.
“If you pile all the money into the short-term strategy, there is a tendency to just support people who are good at writing grants, and they sound good but they may not deliver. Also the pressure to think of applications makes people try and turn their discovery research into applications too prematurely, which often leads to a waste of money.”
Fungal genetics to cancer insights
Nurse's own research, which earned him a share of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, was rooted squarely in curiosity when he started out looking at the genetics of cell division in fission yeast in the 1970s.
“The area I was interested in was what controls the division or reproduction of cells from one to two,” he explains. “It’s an important biological problem, it underpins all growth and all development and [in humans] the process is important for cancer because it goes wrong in cancer.”
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.