Nobel prize comes dropping slow for William Campbell
The path to the awarding of the Nobel Prize in medicine tonight stretches to curiosity sparked in TCD in the 1950s
This evening I’ll be celebrating the achievement of William C Campbell when he receives his Nobel Prize in Stockholm. Short of being awarded oneself, it doesn’t get much better for a university president than seeing a graduate receive the greatest honour in his or her field. Campbell’s story has touched, and resonated with, people around the world, because the work for which he has been awarded – eradicating river blindness – is particularly inspirational and altruistic, and because so many places and institutions can claim him.
Born in Ramelton, Co Donegal, he was a Trinity undergraduate before doing his PhD at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, and joining Merck Research Laboratories, where he made the discovery, with Japanese scientist, Satoshi Omura, that the avermectin family of compounds kill the parasitic worms that cause river blindness and other diseases. He’s now an American and an Irish citizen with a Boston-Donegal accent.
He exemplifies, in fact, the contemporary high-flying academic who, in the course of a career, typically crosses countries and institutions, building networks of valuable contacts. He has said that in Trinity his professor, Desmond Smyth “changed my life by developing my interest in this particular field – parasitic worms”.
This graceful acknowledgement is characteristic of Dr Campbell – he acknowledges everyone who helped him on his path – and it’s also striking to realise just how long a ‘gestation’ he had for his research. He was a Trinity undergraduate getting interested in parasitic worms in the early 1950s; he made his discovery, with Omura, of avermectin in the late 1970s; he helped persuade Merck to distribute the drug free of charge in 1987, and he received the Nobel in 2015 – 65 years after he first started researching parasitic worms.
This is important to emphasise. We all like to see research applied – translated from the laboratory into products and services that benefit humankind; commercialisation, the link-up between academics and industry, is increasingly important. But we shouldn’t necessarily collate “application”, “translation” and “commercialisation” with speed.
Yes, if research can be applied quickly, that’s great, and if we can help speed things up by investing further, then we should – but excellent research needs time and we have to respect that. Frequently the researcher has no idea, when he or she commences, of where the research is going. You start with an idea and a passion for discovery, and you follow where it leads. Ground-breaking research doesn’t tend to arise from a prescriptive or directive start.
Quaternions In fact Dr Campbell wasn’t that slow to apply his research, at least compared with
others. Take William Rowan Hamilton, the 19th century Trinity mathematician and scientist, who discovered quaternions, a complex number system in three- dimensional space. He memorably described his discovery: on October 16th, 1843, he was walking from Dunsink into Dublin when “I then and there felt the galvanic circuit of thought close; and the sparks which fell from it were the fundamental equations between i, j, k . . . I felt a problem to have been at that moment solved – an intellectual want relieved – which had haunted me for at least 15 years before”. He could not resist “the impulse – unphilosophical as it may have been – to cut with a knife on a stone of Brougham Bridge, as we passed it, the fundamental formula”. The equation is now commemorated on a stone plaque at Brougham, or Broome, bridge on the Royal Canal at Cabra.
Fifteen years is long to be worrying at an intellectual problem. More striking again is that it took another 150 years for Hamilton’s great discovery to be applied. It was recognised as seminal but it had no application until the late 20th century – quaternions are now used in the control of spacecraft and in three-dimensional computer modelling, such as video games. Hamilton’s discoveries in dynamics had the same fate – they didn’t attract much interest until Erwin Schrödinger picked up on them 100 years later and gave the Hamiltonian formulation a central role in his construction of quantum mechanics.
This is how great research happens - ideas and discoveries are refined, from one researcher to another. I don’t like the distinction that has grown up between “basic” and “applied” research – as if one is more useful than the other. It’s impossible to foresee which research will have the greatest ultimate applications. When we rush and harry researchers to come up with a commercial product, we are interfering with the process, and ultimately that’s self-defeating.
research The Irish Research Council and the European Research Council (ERC) fund basic, or
“curiosity-driven”, research. This year was Ireland’s best ever performance at the ERC. Success was, in fact, staggering: Ireland jumped from second-lowest ERC performer to second-highest. Only Israel performed more strongly. It was a wonderful endorsement of our universities – despite funding issues and over-crowding, we are getting research right. We need to protect this; our future depends on it.
Research and education are interdependent: what we research determines what we teach, and how we teach inspires the next generation of researchers. A passion for learning – for life-long learning – is what our undergraduates should get at university.
As Campbell receives his Nobel tonight, I will think of him and that other William, Hamilton, and how they embody the academic freedom enshrined in Trinity: “the freedom to teach and pursue all avenues of intellectual enquiry, wherever they may lead”.