The Science Interview -- Paul Nurse

“I’ve never felt this is owed me,” says the Nobel Prize-winning president of the Royal Society. He t

Ten years ago, the biologist Paul Nurse was bringing a plane in to land when the undercarriage jammed. He knew immediately he would have to land the plane on its belly - and that the plane's propeller wouldn't clear the ground.

“I had to turn the engine off," he says. He informed the control tower of the situation and watched the emergency vehicles assemble at the end of the runway. After a few circuits of the airfield to dump fuel, he glided the plane in and landed it with the minimum of damage. "It was all fine," he says casually.

It's the kind of feat - and remark - that makes Nurse such an impressive individual. The Times recently judged him the most influential figure in British science. He has won a Nobel prize. Though he has been described as "brutal" when crossed, it is hard to find anyone with a word to say against him. "Everybody loves Paul," says the Cancer Research UK biologist Tim Hunt, with whom Nurse shared the Nobel Prize. The Sun once called Nurse the "David Beckham of science", but a better parallel comes to mind. He flies planes, drives a Kawasaki motorbike and is not the tallest of men; he's Tom Cruise in Top Gun. Nurse is science's maverick and Britain's scientists are about to find out what that means, because in November 2010 he took over as president of the Royal Society and has some bold ideas about what he might achieve during his five-year term. As soon as he accepted the post, Nurse suggested that a select cadre of the country's top scientists should be given preferential access to research funds. The elite, he reckons, shouldn't have to waste time and energy filing grant applications.

“When you've identified the very best, you should help them," he tells me when we meet at his office on the Euston Road in London.

Scientists who didn't consider themselves among that elite protested that their funding would suffer, but Nurse doesn't see things that way. "It would only be a small fraction of the money: the majority would still go through the normal system."

His forthright approach no doubt owes a debt to his early struggles against the system. He was born in Norwich in 1949 and went to Harrow County School for Boys. His applications to study biology at university were turned down because he did not have a basic foreign-language qualification. He earned his way in by taking a job as a lab technician at a microbiology laboratory run by Guinness. It was only later that Birmingham University bent the rules, waiving the foreign-language requirement and agreeing to take him on. He became the first in his family to go to university, graduating in 1970. There were moments during his undergraduate career when the university may have regretted its decision; he sold Socialist Worker and took part in student protests, including an occupation of the vice-chancellor's office.

Nurse pursued a research career in genetics, undertaking an unglamorous PhD in yeast reproduction at the University of East Anglia. As with most PhD projects, there were long, tedious nights of running experiments with unreliable equipment. His analysis of yeast genomes was made possible only by jamming bits of rubber into the safety switches to prevent them from tripping. From these beginnings, he decided to try to work out the mechanism behind cell division in yeast.

Once he had found the genes that controlled the division process, he suggested that the same genes might be at work in other organisms. In the long run, he was able to elucidate the genetic code that lies behind the life cycle of every biological cell. This was the work that won him the 2001 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Despite the grand achievement, Nurse's undergraduate socialist spirit is still alive and well: he wouldn't be against scientists getting involved in activism. "We are citizens, and citizens should be involved in politics, and I think those that have a strong view should be involved in party politics," he says. "I'm happy to see fellows of the Royal Society politically engaged, if that's what they see as right."

Nurse is fizzing with opinions and ideas but his full energy has not yet been unleashed. He is holding back, waiting for the outcomes of consultations and reports before he introduces the projects he has in mind for the Royal Society. He is in physical limbo, too. In January this year, he took on another job as chief executive of the UK's new Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (UKCMRI) - now to be named the Francis Crick Institute - a super-lab in central London that will bring much of the work of the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust under one roof. However, that roof hasn't yet been built - the UKCMRI site is still a weed-strewn wasteland next to St Pancras Station.

While he waits for the portable sheds to give way to bricks and mortar, Nurse's UKCMRI office is a bland, glass-walled room in the Wellcome Trust building nearby on the Euston Road. It doesn't suit him: there's a plain, uncluttered desk, a few nondescript chairs, some files and piles of paper, but nothing that reflects the character of a maverick.

Unfortunately, his new office at the Royal Society is not quite as he would like it, either; he is waiting for a painting by the neoclassical French artist Jacques-Louis David of the chemist Antoine Lavoisier to be shipped over from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. His research laboratory is also in transition; having just returned to London from New York, where from 2003 to 2010 he was president of the Rockefeller University, the leading biomedical research institution (before that he was director of Cancer Research UK), he is transferring his facilities, and students, to lab space at University College London.

Risky business

Paul Nurse is used to breaking new territory. He sees himself as "a risk-taker"; his approach to science, he says, is like "the adventurer who gets dropped behind enemy lines". Science has been his passion since he received a telescope for his eighth birthday, but he thinks we're doing it wrong and plans to put that right.

In his view, science is something of a pyramid scheme. Those at the top recruit a seemingly endless supply of juniors to work in their labs, without having to guarantee them a return. "We say we're training them, but they're also doing the labour," he says.

“If you're successful you get some sort of position where you set up your own lab and employ maybe eight people. It doesn't take a mathematical genius to see this is utterly unsustainable. You're pyramid-building. This isn't a British problem - this is worldwide and nobody has faced it."

Nurse plans to tackle the problem in his new role at the Royal Society and he hopes the solution will have repercussions across society. "We need to think of becoming a research scientist as just one of the possibilities. We need to have exit strategies for trained scientists, strategies that are valued as much as an academic career. That way, we can export those who are scientifically trained into other professions, like politics, teaching - maybe even the City."

The idea of scientists infiltrating politics, boardrooms and the financial world appeals to Nurse, not only because it would reduce the competition for shrinking research funds (and "tighten up" the flabbier parts of the research portfolio) but also because he is concerned that scientists have become ghettoised. He thinks the world is missing out on their expertise.

He is keen to see more scientists emerging as public figures and is pleased that Brian Cox, whose research is funded by the Royal Society, has been so firmly embraced by the British public, which avidly watched his recent BBC series, Wonders of the Universe. Like Cox, Nurse has begun working in television; in January, in one of his first outings as Royal Society president, he presented a BBC documentary, Science Under Attack, in which he examined what he sees as the rising tide of scepticism towards the claims of science. In one pivotal scene he silenced the Daily Telegraph's climate-sceptic blogger James Delingpole with a question about whether he would ignore scientific opinion if diagnosed with cancer. Delingpole finally asked for the cameras to be turned off.

The programme was not an unqualified success. Perhaps its biggest failing was that Nurse, a white-haired, white man, talked only to other white-haired, white, male scientists - reinforcing a stereotype that the Royal Society is trying hard to dislodge. Its struggle is not helped by the physical appearance of most Royal Society fellows. "I think it's fair to say that it's old, male-dominated and white," he concedes.

Efforts to bring about change are under way, he says, but there are significant obstacles. No one yet has a solution for the chronic absence of black faces in the upper echelons of science. The age issue is similarly difficult to resolve, Nurse says. "Our fellowship is ancient, and we will always be old, because once you're elected you only get older, and you only stop being a fellow when you die."

The male-female balance is slowly being equalised but it can't settle faster than the pool from which it draws. "The society pulls its fellows from among the world's senior academics. If there aren't many women there, then it's difficult for us to elect them."

The female presence in science is certainly growing. The Cambridge University professor Athene Donald, chair of Athena, a group set up to monitor and increase the presence of women in science, says that the number has "increased very substantially". Nurse remembers when he started in research as a time that was "post-Rosalind Franklin" - the British biophysicist - but "just ghastly" for women. "It's significantly better now. In the past ten years we have almost exactly mirrored the composition of professors in the community."

Ladies' day

The Royal Society is seeking to help women in science. It funds 300 gifted young researchers in the UK - including Cox - and a quarter of them are female. Three decades ago, that proportion was one in six: there has been a slow but steady improvement. "One can hope that in 20 to 30 years we're going to see a reflection of that in our fellows," Nurse says.

He plans to keep gender balance high in his mind; the painting on order from the Met depicts Lavoisier and his wife, Marie-Anne, who assisted with the chemist's experiments. It helps that his own daughter Emily is a physicist working at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern in Geneva (see page 34).

Nurse mentions his daughters frequently in interviews; their desire to ride ponies in the countryside swung his decision to move to Oxford in 1988, he once said, and they liked the idea of a house in Manhattan and thus gave their approval to his move to the Rockefeller University in 2003. His wife, Anne, is a sociologist by training, and family life is "feisty", he says. "You may be a Nobel laureate but that doesn't get you out of the washing-up."

A no-nonsense family is a valuable resource, because it can be a dangerous thing for a scientist to win a Nobel prize. The award has a history of turning leading scientists into embarrassments to the establishment. Laureates can now be called on to speak up for HIV/Aids denialism, the power of telepathy and homoeo­pathy, race-based intelligence and the teleportation of genetic information. "It does go to people's heads," Nurse says. "As a scientist, you work in total obscurity until suddenly you earn a Nobel prize. Then journalists ask your opinions about anything and everything and you're expected to say something. There's no reason you should have anything sensible to say."

Nurse is not fazed by success - or authority or power, as was obvious when, in February, I watched him defend the UKCMRI idea before the House of Commons select committee on science and technology. The committee raised valid objections: the UKCMRI could prove unreasonably expensive, the project is London-centred at the expense of regional centres, and the idea of building new biohazard laboratories has concerned some local residents.

Nurse batted away the objections. He cheekily pointed out that Portcullis House in Westminster, where the hearing was held, was also said to be too expensive at the planning stage. "You're really not right," Nurse told a committee member, Graham Stringer MP, who had accused him of "plonking" the centre in London and then rationalising the decision post hoc. The UKCMRI has to be in London because Nurse is "very bothered about attracting the best in the world, and they won't go to certain places and they will come to central London".

The room filled with nervous laughter; the committee has a significant cohort from the north-west of England, one of the rejected locations. On the last point, the opposition by residents was "relatively small", he said, and there are already 100 similar biohazard labs in central London. "We're adding four or five. If you said you couldn't have those here, you'd have to close every hospital in central London."

Nurse is enormously confident of his abilities, but then he has reason to be - he is very much a self-made man. However, his life story contains one surprising twist. In 2008, the US department of homeland security refused him a green card. He was president of the Rockefeller University at the time, living in one of only two detached houses on Manhattan. It seemed like an embarrassing administrative mistake, but it turned out that there was a problem: his birth certificate did not state his father's name. The effort to put that right led to a trail of further discoveries.

After cross-examining relatives who had been sworn to secrecy more than half a century earlier, Nurse learned that Miriam, the woman he thought was his sister, was in fact his mother. Through the 1950s, Nurse was raised in Neasden, north-west London, by his grandparents - a handyman and a cook. They had pretended to be his parents.

With both his "parents" and his birth mother long dead, Nurse has not found out the identity of his father. A well-known British jazz musician was cited as a possibility, but genetic tests have ruled him out. All other leads have been exhausted and he doesn't have the time to keep searching. "If it was a Hollywood film, I'd be sequencing the DNA myself," he says. "But it's more involved than just getting your Y chromosome genotyped."

The discovery about his origins hasn't affected him - or his standing. He made it public, adding it to his biography on the Nobel Prize website. A few months later, in May 2009, while he was still president of the Rockefeller University, he was invited to attend a meeting of what ABC News called "a Who's Who of American wealth and influence". Oprah Winfrey was present, as were the billionaires Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, George Soros and Ted Turner. The aim of the gathering was to find a way to do bigger, better philanthropy for the developing world, and these people wanted to hear what Nurse had to say.

Now, this Neasden maverick of dubious parentage is following in the footsteps of Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren in leading the "august and venerable" (his words, delivered with a mischievous half-smile) Royal Society. "He's a very energetic person, so I think he'll have no problem," says his immediate predecessor, the astronomer Martin Rees. It's clear that Nurse relishes any challenge. As a pilot, he doesn't want anything to do with modern aircraft that can be relied on to fly themselves: his aircraft of choice is a Boeing-Stearman, a biplane used to train fighter pilots during the Second World War. His plans for the Royal Society seem similarly demanding of himself (and may already have the society's grandees assembling the emergency vehicles).

That said, he does not take such an opportunity for granted and plans to use it as carefully as he landed that plane ten years ago. "I come from a very humble background, and I feel enormously privileged to do what I do," he says. "I've never felt this is owed me."

Michael Brooks is the author of "13 Things That Don't Make Sense" (Profile Books, £8.99) and the science columnist of the New Statesman

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. His most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?