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15 October 2010

The NS Interview: Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor, Manchester University

“The cuts risk destroying things that can’t be brought back”

By Sophie Elmhirst

You must be delighted that two Manchester physicists have just won the Nobel Prize.
Everyone feels a great sense of pride. It means a huge amount that Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov’s work has been recognised – it’s the highest accolade in the scientific world. It’s also a wonderful example of how the university supports research with major benefits for society.

Are you worried about how the forthcoming cuts will affect scientific research?
We are told that unprotected government departments will have, on average, a 25 per cent cut. We don’t know how serious the situation will be, but I think it’s going to be somewhere between very and exceptionally difficult.

Will the cuts cause long-term damage?
There is a danger of destroying things that can never be brought back, particularly in science. It means you have no PhD students coming through – but you don’t just lose four or five years, you probably lose ten years, because of the knock-on effect.

Is there a risk of Britain falling behind?
Absolutely – many of our competitors are investing more in science, not just the US and Canada, but China, Germany, France. They are increasing their budgets at a time when it looks as if the budget in the UK will be declining.

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Lord Browne’s review of tuition fees is also due soon. Are you anxious about its impact?
It depends on the model – whether it’s a graduate tax, an increase in fees or a lift of the cap. There is great concern that there will be significant groups of very talented students who won’t be able to afford university.

Was there a moment in childhood when you became fascinated by science?
My father was a biology lecturer – when I was five or six, I saw pictures in his books. Apparently I wrote an essay then saying I wanted to be a scientist. But I nearly chose to go into art.

Do you think the division between art and science in our education system is too strict?
I don’t like the separation – it leads to the view that arts are creative and interesting and science is difficult and logical. The best scientists are extremely creative.

You specialised in neuroscience. To what extent do we understand the brain?
We know the basic wiring, but more difficult is understanding how we think and remember.

Will this understanding improve?
With modern imaging, we can look at functioning inside a living, thinking brain. So we are starting to unravel, for example, which bit of the brain tells us the way home.

Why did you decide to run a university?
My research is still running, I’m not giving it up. But if you enjoy being a scientist, it’s because you like discovering things and solving problems. And that’s what universities are there for: to educate, discover and solve.

Are there barriers facing women in science?
Yes. To be successful you need to have an international network, and that isn’t possible for women caring for children. For some women, the lack of role models is daunting. I’ve been surprised how many people have spoken to me about the importance of having a woman leading the university.

Why do scientists come under such attack?
One of the fundamental difficulties is that any good scientist will say that most things that we believe, we still can’t say we’re certain of. And we do change our minds sometimes.

Do scientists do enough to defend their work?
I think scientists are often poor at communication. I don’t know what happens to us when we become scientists, but we forget how to use normal words.

Are you politically engaged?
I think it’s important that a university is non-political. I’m not particularly political. I was as a student – everybody’s an extreme left-wing student – but less so now.

What does God mean to you?
To me, personally, something abstract that I don’t believe in, but to other people a great deal, and I recognise that.

Should science and religion be seen as opponents?
Science works on proof and testing hypotheses, and I don’t think religion can do that.

Is there, or has there ever been, a plan?
My only ambitions were to become a professor and to be elected a fellow of the Royal Society. Everything else came along and I thought, “That looks like an interesting thing to do.”

Is there anything you regret?
Lots of things. I used to be very impulsive. One thing I’ve learned is to stop and think.

Are we all doomed?
I hope not.

Defining Moments

1956 Born near Preston, Lancashire
1976 Obtains first-class BSc in physiology, University of London
1994 Is awarded a chair in physiology at Manchester University
2003 Wins Pfizer Research Prize
2004 Is elected a fellow of the Royal Society
2005 Made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire
2010 Becomes vice-chancellor and president of Manchester University