Paul Nurse

Have Scientists Earned the Trust of their Paymasters… the Public?

VTR Date: May 21, 2011

Sir Paul Nurse discusses the relationship between scientists and the public.


GUEST: Sir Paul Nurse
AIR DATE: 05/13/2011
VTR: 01/20/2011

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And I’m reminded by my guest’s very presence here today that over the years some of our most provocative and meaningful weekly conversations have been with men – and women – related to the world of science: among them I. I. Rabi, Jonas Salk, Warren Weaver, Lewis Thomas, Margaret Mead, Frans DeWaal, and, of course, in 2006 and again in 2007, my guest himself…Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Laureate in Medicine, former President of the great American research institution, Rockefeller University…and now, returned to England, the President of the Royal Society, the oldest scientific Academy in continuous existence, a Fellowship of the world’s most eminent scientists.

Sir Paul also serves importantly as the first Director and Chief Executive of the United Kingdom Centre for Medical Research and Innovation designed to become one of the world’s preeminent biomedical research entities.

All of which recently led The Economist to report that his long list of academic accolades, along with his penchant for fast motorbikes, his “chummy manner and oodles of scientific star power have earned my guest the nickname, ‘the David Beckham of science’.”

Yet I rather prefer to think back a half decade to when my guest first joined me here to talk on a much lower key about scientists’ enormous need to earn the trust and confidence of their paymasters…the public…in order to keep their very “license to operate”.

And today I would begin by asking Dr. Nurse if scientists have done just that in recent years, or whether science is now in an even more precarious position …though I grant that perhaps that judgment may be different in his country than in ours. Sir Paul, what’s the situation with science and the public?

NURSE: Well, Richard, first of all can I say what a pleasure it is to be back here again and to see you in such fine fettle. It’s really good to be talking to you again.

Well, trust in science. I mean it is crucial, as you say. We do need to maintain our license to operate. And that isn’t always something that is natural for a scientist.

You know we tend to be individuals who beetle away at work in the lab, we’re not always used to talking to people. And it doesn’t come naturally to most scientists to get out there and talk to the public. But that’s absolutely crucial for what we do.

Because science has an effect on nearly everything of our every days lives.

I mean if everything around us is influenced by science, most of the political decisions that we make, to a greater or lesser extent are influenced by science. In fact, being able to deal with the complexities of science I would suggest is, is key to a healthy democracy. It’s as important as that.

And one thing that has perhaps changed, even in the five years since we last discussed this … is the increase in social media, the Internet, the blogsphere … because what this is doing is giving a voice to others who are not scientists, but who follow what science is doing and who maybe actually driven by particular points of view and they sort of mix up opinion and interpretation with actually the science itself.

We, we’ve seen that with, for example, the debate about climate change. And this can be very difficult because we’ve got to have an ability to analyze complex science issues in a way that is independent of ideology and dogma and then have the political arguments about what we should do with that after that.

If we mix them together … in other words if we have individuals thinking they know what the right answer is … that’s no way to do science and it’s no way to get science properly informing decisions that are important for society.

So I see that transition in the last numbers of years, which is really crucial for this whole question of communicating with the public and trust in science.

HEFFNER: But then you’re talking, as I don’t think you often do, about … may I “spitting against the wind” … you’re talking about taking a great movement of our times … the social networks … and trying to function in such an important way … working against their influence.

NURSE: Well, it’s not so much working against their influence as much as recognizing the influence and adapting to it. The mistake would be for us to, to … for scientists to shelter back white coats and say, “just listen to us”.

You know, we’ll get nowhere with that. We simply have to recognize that the social media, in all its forms is out there, and people are listening to it and we need to engage with it, too.

We need to be aware of the influence that it can have and we can’t be precious about it … we can’t be over academic and intellectual. We have to get out there and debate it. And it requires actually, perhaps a different … a different way of approaching it. Because I’ve noticed in reading blogs and so on about particular issues, how strident, quite often, they are.

They’re written by … often by individuals who … using the powers of rhetoric and of oratory to persuade people of a certain view … when scientists tend to be, not always, but tend to be a bit cooler about how they discuss things.

You know one thing I learned very early on is, it’s very important to argue and disagree with your fellow scientists, but you never tell them that they are stupid. What you say … you may say “that idea, that thought was stupid or that data looks a bit strange to me” and getting that sort of respect, that mutual respect between individuals allows you to say very critical things.

You look at the social media and blogs … there’s no mutual respect there … it’s simply trying to get a point about an issue across, even if it means destroying the opposition and destroying their characters. It’s, it’s straight politics.

One of the things I’ve noticed in the US is when you get these advertisements about politicians … how rude they are about the opposition.

There one …you know Houses of Parliament … which, of course, is my tradition … there’s one quite nice feature … when they always say, “The Honorable Gentleman” … okay … I’m not sure they ever really mean it …

HEFFNER: Probably never.

NURSE: … but it forces them at least to always take the step back, rather than simply insult and be rude and try and destroy an argument by innuendo, rather than force of argument.

HEFFNER: But now, let me get back to my question. Is what you’re saying … does it carry the implication that you are blogging? And that you are making use of the social media?

NURSE: No, I’m a complete dinosaur myself. I mean I’m one of those sort of characters who has a mobile phone … but it’s never on. You know, it’s … you know, I’m over the age of 50, well over the age of 60 … and you can always tell people’s age as to whether their mobile … their cell phone is on or off, when you phone them. I use mine like an answering machine. And my daughters and many younger than me, don’t. So that’s a real distinction. I’m a dinosaur. I don’t blog, I don’t do the social media, at all.

However, I do think that we have to be aware of what it can do and we have to be getting out there like conversations, such as the one we’re having. I’m better at the media probably than, than blogs and, and get to the public in other ways. I’m not suggesting we all have to do social media. I’m only saying “Be aware” that many people can have an impact through those sorts of media and we have to get out there, too, to actually point … give out the scientific point of view, so that the public is aware of what science is telling us and what scientists are saying.

HEFFNER: Well, when you first came to Rockefeller University and we … I had the pleasure of, of talking with you here … you were very concerned about this … losing the license …

NURSE: Mmmm.

HEFFNER: … has it changed any?

NURSE: Well, you know, I can’t say there’s been huge improvement. Mmm, I think … and I think a lot about this. I think if, if I think about my colleagues … they’re extraordinarily busy, extraordinarily busy trying to raise the money to support their endeavors, trying to project to their colleagues what work they’re doing, so they spend a lot of time going ‘round different universities, institutions, conferences, throughout the world, so they’re constantly on 747’s jetting around, so that their data and their arguments, their theories can be heard by their colleagues. And they are not spending the time, which I know I argued before … we all have to do … to get out there to the public.

Now I’m in a slightly different phase of my career in the sense that I’m .. I’m not in mid-stream trying to maintain a reputation. I have a reputation. I still actually am a research scholar. But I do that only half my time and half my time I run institutions.

And part of that half is spent also getting out and talking to the public in the media, and talking to people on the street, in fact.

And that’s very important. But I do know I’m in the minority in doing that because everybody’s so busy. So I don’t think it’s improved.

I think what has improved is that more scientists recognize that it is important. And why that’s important is because five to ten years ago perhaps my colleagues sneered a bit too much about those that went out there on, on the media.

You know it wasn’t quite the proper thing to do. I don’t think they think that any more. And that’s a real, that a real advance.

But actually getting enough good individuals who can speak well to the public, because not everybody can, of course, is really important and we do need to encourage it.

So I don’t see a grand swell change in how, how we’re operating. I see it’s now better accepted and I’m optimistic about that, but we still have quite a way to go.

HEFFNER: Do you see a ground swell change? Or any kind of change, though, in the, the funding of science? In, in the “what goes along with the license … the wherewithal to practice”.

NURSE: Well, funding is really important, of course. Actually science in the United States is funded rather well. You know, as a profession we tend to complain about funding all the time and I’m going to tell you why that is the case because we have a problem that I’m really concerned about.

But science in the United States is funded quite well in a … at a pre-competitive level. It’s one of the reasons America is a great nation … commercially … is it has such a strong funding for science … pre-commercially … in the great universities and research institutions throughout the land … that that spawns many ideas, observations, products that can then be taken up commercially in, in the for-profit sphere.

And I think that’s been an extremely powerful engine for economic growth in, in the US. To have, have that approach. And that has relied on, on good funding.

HEFFNER: But, but let me interrupt this.


HEFFNER: Because I think if we had here a group of presidents of the major state universities and the research universities, and I’m not talking about private ones, they would question your assumption that they are doing as well now as they had been doing.

NURSE: Right. And that’s when I … because I need to explain something, which is, which is really troubling me.

What, what I was saying in absolute terms … the funding of American science overall is not too bad. That, that, that was the main point I was making. But we have an issue and I’m going to explain what it is … science is, is carried out largely by youth.

You go into my laboratory and the majority … I have a laboratory of about 10 people and they range from the age 20 to early mid-thirties. Okay?

They’re the engine room of research activity. Not old fogies like me, you know … 60. They’re the engine room. Okay?

Now, when you go and ask “what is possible for their next?”. The possibilities for long term permanent jobs are just not there.


NURSE: Now, when people think about this, they say “Well, we just have to change the career structure”. But you can’t change the career structure in a meaningful way because the only way such a system can work, where there is such a broad base … is in a rapidly growing budget for science.

If it’s a steady state budget for science … what you have is lots of people at the bottom end who, who are young, who are doing the work … with no eventual opportunities because you can only get those opportunities if it’s growing.

I, I mean I’ll give you an example. I … in my life … I’m not sure how many graduate students I’ve trained, maybe 30, maybe 40. I mean that’s quite a lot, but not as many as some. Post-doctoral workers … those who have Ph.D.’s, it’ll be twice as many.

So, at least 100 people have gone through my, my laboratory. But if you think about it in steady state, during my lifetime I should only provide one person to replace me.

Now, when you think about it like that you realize that scientists are never going to be happy because … unless the budget’s expanding because that’s the only way we can generate a stable, scientifically funded environment.

We’ve got to really think about this. How do we maintain a sustainable … it’s a good word … sustainable, scientific endeavor when we rely so much on youth … who are the creative individuals, who can have the … you know, have the agile mind to think about new things, and yet we can’t give them the opportunities later.

I mean … I’m not suggesting I have solutions. I am saying it’s a problem and it’s not one that we’ve properly addressed.

HEFFNER: Has anyone addressed it?

NURSE: You know it’s something we tend to avoid because … what do you do?


NURSE: Let’s take me as a university president. I mean, am I going to, when I try to recruit somebody say, “Yes, come here, but I’m only going let you have a group of two people, because if I let you have a group of 12, it’s not sustainable. Okay?”.

Do you think they’d come to me? The answer is “No”. So when you look at the local level, all the pressures are to give everybody 10, 12 youngsters to look after rather than the couple, which was probably what it was like 50, 70 years ago … these big groups weren’t, weren’t there in, in that same way.

And as a consequence, we haven’t got a clearly sustainable endeavor. And I’d like us really to start thinking about that as a problem.

HEFFNER: You’re saying in a sense that 50 years ago we were growing. Today growth isn’t the word that you can use quite so easily.

NURSE: It’s absolutely correct. Fifty years ago … you know the, the scientific endeavor as we now know it really is after the Second World War. Before the Second World War there was brilliant scientific advances. But the amounts of money and percentage of the economy going into it was smaller and we had small groups and individuals who were … worked themselves until they were older than, than 35.

And that’s changed since 1945. Because it was recognized, particularly because … how science influenced the course of the Second World War. It’s recognized that science had much to offer. We put money in. We then have youth doing it. And the whole thing has expanded.

It supported in absolute terms quite well. But it is only sustainable when it’s growing. This is a big problem we have to try and deal with.

HEFFNER: But I can’t imagine that you haven’t felt a solution, even if you haven’t intellectually wrapped yourself around them.

NURSE: Well, I think it’s very difficult. And I mean … and I notice that we don’t talk much about difficult problems in public like this … among … it’s not my nature not to do that … so I’m putting out a problem there, I’m not claiming I know the solution, but I am saying it’s something we need to address.

What thoughts have I had? I’ve had a, a few thoughts. One is … I do think that very large research groups don’t help here.

I mean if … I, I have a group around 10 … that isn’t sustainable. But some people have groups of 20, 30 … 40 and I mean that’s clearly even less sustainable.

So I think there … we need to think about smaller groups. I think we need to think about smaller groups that collaborate with each other for certain projects and then move apart and then re-collaborate. And so that we have a more interactive and communicative so of eco-system of research. So, that’s another way of sort of dealing with it.

So that we have, if you like, a greater proportion of heads … of chiefs to Indians … rather than chiefs and, and lots of Indians … and I think that, that would help. So I think that may be another way forward.

Something else that’s occurred to me is that … at the training level … undergraduates and post-graduates … we could use more young people at that stage and perhaps give them a training experience which trains them not simply to be a research scientist which is how we generally operate.

I take a Ph.D. student, it’s like having a, an apprentice working with me. And I’m training them to be just like me.


NURSE: But we could have a somewhat different system where I’m training them so they know how research is done. But there’s other training. We can teach them to do other things in the world. And we reocognize that quite a few of those will actually go off and do something else. Because what we need … to go back to the science and society thing … is it’s good to have scientists in positions of importance elsewhere in the endeavor. We need good scientists in teaching.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s the …

NURSE: So the area …

HEFFNER: … I would think you would focus on.

NURSE: Well, there’s, there’s education. But there’s also policymakers. There’s politicans. How many scientists do you think there are in Congress? I don’t know, but we know it’s low.

It will be full of lawyers, but you’ll hardly find a scientist. Yet science is the basis of innovation and all the things around us. Why is that?

We could have a different view, a more holistic view of the eco-system of science. So that we train a Ph.D. student, but we give them other experiences and help them move elsewhere.

So that we reduce this into a point where there’s more peaks up here … apart from research science. That’s the best I’ve got to, so far.

HEFFNER: You’ve made the point about the 21st century being a century in which there is integration again in the world of science. Why is that so important to you?

NURSE: I think that true advances often in, in our intellectual understanding of the world often occur at the interfaces between traditional disciples.

And integrating different scientific approaches can be very, very rewarding. Because we tend to get trained in different sorts of ways. We think about problems in different sorts of ways. I’m a biologist. Physicists, for example, get trained in a different way of thinking.

Put a biologist and a physicist together and once they’ve worked out how they might talk to each other, and that isn’t so easy … sometimes …


NURSE: … hmmm, then new things can happen because we run on rails, you know. One of the great problems with intellectual endeavors is that we run on rails. And, and the real …

HEFFNER: Separate.

NURSE: Exactly. Separate rails … there’s one … there’s another. And jumping off the rails is a good idea. And one way of doing that is to get mixed up with individuals who don’t think quite the same way.

I have one plus … my daughter … one of my daughters … I’ve got two … and one works for television, actually, as a TV producer.

The other one is a high energy physicist … worked in Fermi Lab … the big accelerator and now works in London … University College, London and also CERN, the big accelerator there.

So she’s a physicist … she’s a pointy headed sort of physicist … really sort of intellectual …

HEFFNER: I won’t tell her you said that.

NURSE: (Laughter) No, please don’t. No, please don’t. But I get exposed to that. Am I … it makes me think differently as a consequence and that’s just, you know, talking over the boiled egg in the morning.

Getting a proper professional interaction of that sort, I think, are very productive. So I’m big on that.

HEFFNER: Is that happening more now?

NURSE: It is. For biology. I’m a biologist … I mean I, I …

HEFFNER: You mean the biologists talk together?

NURSE: Yeah. Well, I, I’m conscious that I’m talking a lot about biology, but … so I thought I should give a health warning that I’m not talking for all science in what I say here.

But in biology … physicists, the more physical scientists have had great influence in the history of the subject in my lifetime.

Once, at the beginning of the molecular biology revolution, people involved then like Watson and Crick and Brenner and so on … and, and individuals involved that … in fact Crick was one of them often came from the physical sciences. And they .. that was very, very stimulating for biologists and that was in the fifties and sixties.

It’s happened again. It’s happening now because biology has got to the point where we’re producing huge amounts of data, describing how living things operate, but not necessarily helping us understand how living things operate. You need that data, you need the descriptions. But turning descriptions into understanding is more difficult. And there we need help from all sorts of sources.

And one of them is physicists. When you have a physicist looking … smashing atoms together or smashing protons together … they produce huge amounts of data and they have to try and make sense of it.

They’re used to dealing with overwhelming data sets. And we can learn from that in biology and we wouldn’t do that in a traditional stratified university environment where everybody’s in those silos. So we have to break those silos down and mix different disciplines. And that’s where we’ll get real advances.

HEFFNER: And you think, I gather that, in this century, we will come to understand life and it will be through the, the mixture of the disciplines.

NURSE: Yes. I hope I’m not being over-optimistic. I’ve said by the end of the century …


NURSE: … so I’m going to be long dead to be proven incorrect. So, I’m happy in making that forecast

What I’ve said is that … I’m a cell biologist … I work on cells, very simple cells … yeast cells … and cells are the simplest unit that exhibit the properties of life. And for me that’s the place to look for understanding how life works.

Mostly people think “well let’s understand the brain.” You know, for example, and we all want to understand the brain. But it’s pretty difficult. Pretty difficult.

So, you know, I think we’re in the decade of the brain or was that last decade? But I always say when people say “it’s the decade of the brain”, I say, “actually it’s the milenniaum of the brian” … that’s a thousand year problem.

I think a hundred year problem is understanding the basic properties of life and I think the way to address it is through cells, which I study myself and how cells operate.

Because cells have all the sort of characteristics of life. They, they form a homeostatic, that is self-maintaining system, they can communicate with each other, they reproduce, they appear to have purpose. And all of these things one can, can study and we’ve a chance of studying.

I mean, in the yeasts I study, for example, we’ve got 5,000 genes, it’s rather simple and we have a chance of working out how it all … may all operate.

HEFFNER: And you will by the end of the century.

NURSE: I think we will. I think we will. By, by the descriptions of complex beta sets, by attracting scientists from different disciplines, physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers … I think we’ll get a gripe of this and if you were talking to me in a hundred years, we would understand many of the basic phenomenon of life and how they work.

HEFFNER: I’m tempted in the minute we have left … to ask you, Sir Paul, then what?

NURSE: Ha. Then we’ll, then we’ll take on the brain, after that.

HEFFNER: Then we’ll take on the brain. Do you think we’ll be … you think we’ll be better people when we’ve achieved what you want to achieve in this …

NURSE: Well, what do I think? I think the brain, by the way, will be studied very profitably in that hundred years, too.

I think part of being human is better understanding ourselves and the world around us. And I think science provides that better understanding and it will, indeed, make us better human beings.

HEFFNER: That’s why I’m so grateful that you came back again today on the Open Mind. And I hope you will stay there and let us do another program.

NURSE: Of course.

HEFFNER: Thanks, Sir Paul. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.” And do visit The Open Mind website at

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.