Sir Paul Nurse takes nothing for granted. The way forward for Britain’s most eminent scientist – Nobel Laureate and President of the Royal Society – is to build truth on tested truth. Nurse’s pleasure in the solid edifice of science, built up over generations, is infectious; the lift we take up to his sunny lab in the London Research Institute is, he points out, a wonderful thing. “That lift depended on Faraday’s discoveries in the 19th century on electromagnetism and generators and motors. Now it’s just part of everyday life and we don’t even notice it.”
Nurse, 63, is a ground-breaking geneticist and cell biologist who will deliver this year’s Richard Dimbleby Lecture, and he’s on a mission to make us sit up and appreciate science. It’s hard to imagine a better man for the job. Fairly crackling with enthusiasm, silver hair permanently on end, he looks like he might recently have been connected to a powerful generator himself.
“Science impinges on every aspect of our lives,” he says. “It changes our view of the world. But the wonder of science and what it has achieved sets the stage for asking how science can help us in improving our society – our health, our environment, issues of sustainability – and how it can become the ultimate driver of our economy.”
Nurse, you gather, is a 0-60 kind of man. He pilots his own plane, rides a 500cc Kawasaki motorbike and, for a man who spends much of his professional life hunched over a microscope (“lab life keeps me sane”), he is unusually committed to “the big picture”. As a working-class boy growing up in Wembley, London, he looked through his little telescope at the night sky and marvelled. But he worries that today’s schoolchildren are unable to distinguish between astronomy (science) and astrology (nonsense).
“I think that sums it up. Astrology might be amusing and entertaining, but it has nothing to do with rational thought. Astronomy is a science where you get ideas and hypotheses, you test them, you try to shoot them down and, at the end of that rational process, you have reliable knowledge. Learning to make that distinction between reliable and unreliable knowledge is really important in education.”
The rational life is no proof against secrets and shocks. You’d never guess it from his manner (when he is on a roll, you can almost hear the synapses snapping) but this is Nurse in recovery mode. In January, he underwent quadruple heart-bypass surgery. “It was a complete surprise to me,” he explains. “I had no symptoms. I go jogging every week! It was only because I was having a stress test in preparation for a trip to the Antarctic that they discovered it. I’m probably one of those people who have a ‘silent disease’ and then just fall over with a heart attack. So I think that test saved my life.”
Five years ago, Nurse was equally surprised to learn the circumstances of his birth. Born to a family of strict Baptists, Nurse found out in the course of applying for a US Green Card that the couple who brought him up were really his grandparents, while the woman he believed to be his big sister was in fact his mother. “Just like a Victorian novel,” he says, cheerily.
His upbringing has, he believes, made him more tolerant of religious views than is perhaps usual in some parts of the scientific community. “Some people would call me an atheist,” he says. “Strictly speaking, I’m a sceptical agnostic. It is very difficult to argue that ‘we know the unknowable doesn’t exist’ because it’s not a testable hypothesis. I’m less tolerant, though, when religion is very intolerant itself.”
When religion rears itself against science, the “amicable truce” is over. Nurse, who describes himself as “on the liberal, pinkish side” has spoken out angrily against attempts by religious and political bodies (particularly in the US) to obstruct stem cell research. “Get the science right first,” he urges, “then discuss the political implications.”
“The stem cell debate,” he explains, “is really built on the problem of making decisions about when life begins. That’s a difficult decision and science alone cannot solve that question. But science can inform the question. I think the majority of people would not think that a single cell is the beginning of human life. It is obviously the beginning of a process that leads to human life, but the religious belief that says life starts at precisely this point, or that point, is arbitrary. If you went back a hundred years or so, they’d be saying something completely different.”
Nurse is scrupulously exact about the potential of stem cell research. “I never over-exaggerate how science can be translated into applications and use, because it is often a rather difficult and stony road to follow. But the research is significant because stem cells can in principle be used to repair the damage where pre-existing muscle cells or nerve cells have died. In animal experiments that has been shown to be the case. In human trials it’s still not clear. But there’s definitely a potential that would allow us to have an approach to serious diseases of degeneration, such as muscular dystrophy, or damage to the spinal cord, where we do not as yet have much in the way of treatment.”
On the six-million-dollar question – a cure for cancer – Nurse, a field-leader in cancer research, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001 for his part in the discovery of proteins that control cell division, displays qualified excitement.
“With science, most of the time it’s not about ‘breakthroughs’, it’s about bricks in the wall. There’s never going to be a cure for cancer because cancer is a generic term to describe a set of widely differing diseases, with widely differing causes, that happen where cells divide out of control. And most of the time, cancer is a disease of old age.
“We have repair systems working to repair all cell damage – in the course of an hour, there may be 10,000 ‘repair events’ going on in your DNA – but over time, those damaged cells will ‘escape’. Now this knowledge is fantastic and we didn’t have it when I was young. It means we’re in a position where we could create drugs that will be more specific for a particular cancer. My view is that over decades – it could be 50 years – the incidence of cancers will gradually come down. It’s never going to be zero, I don’t think, but it will become a much more controllable disease.”
This passion for consolidated knowledge chimes perfectly with Nurse’s recent appointment as Director and Chief Executive of the new Francis Crick Centre for Medical Research and Innovation that’s due to open in London in 2015.
Nurse’s vision is of an interdisciplinary, international community of scientists that will make Britain both the hub and engine of a new scientific enlightenment. “I want the Francis Crick to be the reverse of the ‘brain drain’, by making it such a great place for scientists to work that it will be a magnet for the rest of the world. It needs to be multi-disciplinary – so that we can have not only biologists and physicians, but physicists, chemists and mathematicians.
“We academics tend to be a bit pointy-headed sitting in our ivory towers and that isn’t good for thinking about scientific applications. I want the Francis Crick to be open to venture capitalists, to engineers, to social reformers. I want it to be permeable to commercial ventures so that we can drive economic benefit more efficiently.
“If you look back to the Industrial Revolution, when Britain led the world economically, one reason for that was that it was small enough, so that you had groups of people who were simultaneously scientists, entrepreneurs and industrialists. I like the idea of the Francis Crick having a party every Friday where we invite young people from the City or the media or the public sector and mix it all up a bit.”
It is essentially a 21st-century take on the original aims of the Royal Society. “The birth of science – and the birth of the Royal Society – in the 17th century was always coupled to improving man’s estate,” says Nurse. “We need to get back to that.” He rubs his hands at the thought – not metaphorically, but dusting off his palms in preparation for the task in hand. With a following wind, you believe Sir Paul Nurse will have man’s estate sorted by teatime.
The Richard Dimbleby Lecture is on Tuesday 10.35pm BBC1 (11.05pm in Wales Sand Northern Ireland; 11.35pm in Scotland)
This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published 21 February 2012