Paul Nurse drawn by Ellie Foreman-Peck.
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Paul Nurse: “We should help people make their own choices about family size”

The Nobel Prize-winning geneticist takes the NS Centenary Questionnaire.

What is the most important invention of the past hundred years?

Penicillin. Imagine a world without antibiotics, a world where infections that would barely keep you off work or school today would kill you. That world existed a little over 70 years ago.

The discovery of penicillin was important but we also needed scientists such as Howard Florey to get the drug developed for wide use. We are in grave jeopardy of throwing all of that away by using antibiotics so much that the bugs become resistant to them. If we are not careful, we will go back to dying from things that are easily treated today.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past hundred years?

That DNA is the hereditary material of life and that its structure reveals both how it can encode information and how that information can be copied precisely.

What is the greatest sporting event of the past hundred years?

The 1966 World Cup. It was the one time England really achieved something in our national sport. I was brought up in Wembley and was living there in 1966, so I was very close to the great event.

Which book, film and/or work of art has had the greatest impact on you and why?

Zeno of Bruges by Marguerite Yourcenar: a tribute to how the light of reason can prevail in the darkness of irrationality. Also, the Ingmar Bergman film The Seventh Seal, an exploration of religious doubt and a celebration of decent human values. And Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon; it challenges what is really real.

Who is the most influential or significant politician of the past hundred years?

Nelson Mandela, for dealing with conflict resolution in a fractured society – and for the power of forgiveness.

And author?

James Joyce, who almost reinvented the novel and who laid bare our souls. Witty and quite funny at times, too.

And playwright?

Bertolt Brecht. His work, in particular Galileo, champions science ahead of dogma and ideology. The message is as important today as it was in the time of Galileo.

How about anyone in business?

Hermann Hauser. He’s not a household name but he has made a big contribution to putting science to practical use, including mobile phone technology and genome sequencing.

And sportsperson?

As a small boy, I was taken to White City to see Emil Zátopek run. In the 1952 Olympics, Zátopek’s marathon was a last-minute decision. In those days, sportspeople seemed a little more real.

And philanthropist?

David Rockefeller, for supporting the Rockefeller University in New York (of which I used to be president), where so many contributions to biomedicine have been made. And for always being modest and the perfect gentleman.

What is your favourite quotation?

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was the space race that first inspired my passion for science. Manned space exploration still has the power to enthral.

What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next century?

Handling decisions that involve science will become increasingly crucial for a healthy democracy. Science impacts all aspects of our lives and we need to ensure that our democracy can manage the difficult policy questions that will arise.

What is your greatest concern about the future?

We have come a long way since the Enlightenment and most of the time I am confident that we will continue to move forward. But every now and then we show signs of turning away from rationality and evidence and falling back into the arms of ideology or blind faith.

What will be the most dramatic development in your own field?

A fuller understanding of how cells work. They are the simplest entity that exhibits the properties of life, so this understanding will bring us very close to working out many of the mysteries of life.

What is the priority for the future well-being of both people and our planet?

In 2012, the Royal Society published a report called People and the Planet. It is a good place to start. We need to tackle the twin issues of population and consumption. That will require rebalancing the use of resources in a fairer way and helping people to make their own choices about family size.

Paul Nurse is a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist and the president of the Royal Society

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The radicalism of fools

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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