Sir Paul Nurse plans “gentle anarchy” for the Francis Crick Institute

“Gentle anarchy” and political diplomacy are the essential tools which Sir Paul Nurse is equipped with to drive forward Britain’s agenda as a world leading innovator of science.

The Nobel prize winner (an honour awarded for his collaborative discovery on what controls the division and shape of cells), Sir Paul is President of the Royal Society, Britain’s leading scientific body, and Chief Executive of the Francis Crick Institute, which, when it opens in London in 2015, will be the largest biomedical research campus in Europe (if not the world) employing 1,500 staff, including 1,250 scientists, with an operating budget of over £100 million. The Institute is a unique partnership between the Medical Research Council (MRC), Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust, UCL (University College London), Imperial College London and King’s College London.

This makes Sir Paul perhaps the most powerful scientist in Britain today and he had an astonishing rise to power, made all the more extraordinary as he was a working class boy who struggled to get to university because he didn’t have an O’level in languages (he failed French six times). His father was a a chauffeur and his mother a cleaner.

He also made an astonishing discovery in his 50s that the woman he thought was his mother was in fact his grandmother, while the woman he regarded as his older sister was his mother; she died after he stumbled across the truth when applying for a United States green card where his birth certificate was required. In this fascinating BBC podcast, he remarks about the irony of not knowing his own genetics, while being a world leading geneticist himself.

Back to the science. Sir Paul gave a lecture to Cambridge Network entitled Making Science Work and I have summarised some of the highlights from his speech:

 Science in the UK today and immigration

“The UK is good at science, but we cannot rest on our laurels. Excellent scientific research requires talent and the most accomplished scientists in the world need to be trained here and attracted here. The UK is known to be excellent in research, scientists of the highest quality around the world want to come and work here; that can be only to our country’s good. But the necessity to attract highly trained scientists from abroad has to be reflected in the UK’s immigration policy, and at the moment we are shooting ourselves in the foot with the application of our policy.  It is, in fact, largely a perception issue, and a bureaucratic one, but it is still a very significant problem.”

 Failure

“Very good scientists fail, I have failed many times and the closer you are to real discovery, you will fail more often. There are different ways of doing science, and I am not going to get too moral about it. Very effective science is often just behind the cutting edge and just watching where things are going and they do a good job, I am not criticising that. I don’t like doing that, I am rather arrogant. I prefer to do something which wouldn’t happen unless I was doing it, if you see what I mean.”

Universities and science

“The ivory tower of the university has a number of pluses – the focus on  quality, on curiosity. But it has a disadvantage of being divorced from the real world. And I actually think that research done in an ivory tower should reach out more beyond the ivory tower and be thinking about the use of that work for society. ”

Being risk averse

“I do think though that it is difficult to get the investment of money into the right areas because if you are a business man, you  know what it’s like. If  you are a FTSE 100 company and you have trouble in one area, you will never get another company, you are blotted. Whereas my experience in the US is they just move on, and sometimes it can be irritating how they do that, but there is a certain optimism about it which you need. I think we have to be less risk averse as a society, we need to get the decision making out of the city ……. people on the ground will have an idea how it works, and just see if it works.  Often it fails. As we know, part of the reason is that people get forced into translation too early, so what I think is that what we need in the public sphere to get work into a better shape, and then we need greater risk from the investment side to get things going.”

Leadership and bean counting bureaucrats

“I’m a romantic and an idealist and I do have an administrative role and I still run a laboratory which McKinsey would think was crazy. This afternoon I spent in my laboratory, this morning I was on the board. People would say this isn’t the best use of your time, but it is,  because I am still there worrying about the same problems as the people one’s making decisions about. I work in research institutes and if the water supply is a problem, I know about it just as well as the scientist down the corridor. So I think that in managing complex organisations, and they do become complex, you need competent management, but what you really need is leadership in addition to that, and we are turning our scientific leaders into bean counting bureaucrats and I don’t think this is good. I think we have to preserve scientific leaders who will lead, who will be if they still wish to be, or should have been recently, practitioners so they still know what the problems are, and some people think I am crazy, and I’ve lost jobs myself because of that, but I think it is crucial.”

Funding

“Those leading funding research bodies should focus their attention on high level strategic priorities, avoiding the temptation to become too prescriptive and too finely grained in recommendations concerning what areas should be funded. These should be left to those close to the research who are much more likely to make sensible decisions.  To me, this is obvious, but it is a constant struggle to convince  others that this is a sensible approach.”

The Francis Crick Institute

Describing how it will be run, Sir Paul said:

“Nearly everything I said today will apply to the Crick if I am allowed to do it. The primacy of the individual, I will have no departments in there, there will be this gentle anarchy, there will be self assembly of interest groups, so if you are a scientist and you are interested in activity a, b, c, you can choose 1, 2, or 3, or if you are a misanthrope, you can choose none.  I recognize there are misanthropes out there too, not everybody is cuddly and interactive. The PHd programme will have a capacity to export people, it will be multi-disclipliniary. ….. The real issue, the real focus, is the individual. Individuals move the needle and you need high quality. Let’s explore a scientific metaphor – you identify a good person, you identify the continent they should be exploring, you give them a decent sledge and let them get on with it.”

Science, creativity and freedom

“Good research is a creative activity and scientists have more similarity than might be imagined with those pursuing out other creative activities, such as the arts and the media. Like those other creative workers, scientists thrive on freedom and organising them, as I know to my cost, is like herding cats. Freedom of thought, freedom to pursue a line of investigation wherever it may lead  to uncover uncomfortable truths are all crucial to an effective, scientific endeavor. A scientist whose thoughts are constrained, who is too strongly directed or is unable to freely exchange ideas will not be an effective scientist.

“Similarly, societies that are not free and do not encourage the free exchange of ideas, or do not respect the values of science cannot be, in my be in view, ultimately, leading scientific powers because that freedom is closely connected with the creativity required for good science.”

Science and Technology Committee

When asked about the majority of MPs without a scientific background, Sir Paul replied:

“Talking about the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, it is completely hopeless. I am probably going to insult somebody, it is not of prime quality. I am slightly more sympathetic to them. In fact, I think it is not essential for a policy maker to be a scientist to be able to cope with science. I think they have to be interested and sympathetic to it and relate to it.  I have to work a lot with David Willetts, but with science he is totally engaged with it (he is a social scientist) and he managed to cope with it.. I had dinner last night with Waldergrove, the previous science minister, and he was a Classicist, and he was good at it too. So I don’t think you absolutely have to be a scientist, but I would put my finger on it and say we have to have policy makers who: a) recognize the importance of science, and: b) go to the right people and get advice on science.  When they are being influenced by shadowy lobby groups who are driven by a political agenda over certain issues, then we run into issues.”

Science and education

“Here in the country our citizens need an education that allows them to fully participate in a democracy that will increasingly require engagement with scientific matters. Teaching should be of a quality so that those pupils with talent and inclination to be scientists are inspired to do so, but that will be difficult if we continue as now with nearly all primary school teachers – over a quarter of chemistry teachers, nearly a third of physics teachers – having no specialist qualifications with science.

“There should be greater attention of practical science, I have a particular liking of natural history, reinforcing the fact that science is built on observation and experiment. We can use the natural world as our special laboratory. Kids can go out there and look at spiders’ webs, and ask, ‘why is a spider’s web here or there?” This is research, this is science, they get to know what science is. Pupils need to be inspired by the wonder of science and understand why science generates reliable knowledge. At the very least, everyone leaving school should know the difference between astronomy and astrology, and I have to say that isn’t the case at this present time.”

*This post also appears on the Huffington Post.

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