Paul Nurse

There are not all that many people who can really move the needle: Sir Paul Nurse

VTR Date: May 14, 2011

Medicine Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse discusses notions of scientific elitism.


GUEST: Sir Paul Nurse
AIR DATE: 05/21/2011
VTR: 01/20/2011

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

And this is the conclusion of a conversation with Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Laureate in Medicine, former President of America’s great research institution, the 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.

My guest 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 centers.

And I would like first to ask my guest today about the charge of scientific “Elitism” made against him of all people because – if I understand what’s going on – in a world of limited resources, he has suggested emphasizing fairly extensive funding for a limited number of already accomplished scientists.

After all, as my guest has said, “There are not all that many people who can really move the needle”. Is “moving the needle” your motivation here?

NURSE: My motivation is to move the needle, and I think it’s possible, because, in fact, to do it this way, that is to support the very best scientists well … because, in fact, it doesn’t take so much money to do it.

I was thinking, when making that proposal that what one should do is identify … and in a country, such as the United Kingdom, which I was thinking of … if you take all scientific areas … I was imaging 100 or 150 research professors in that category.

And if we supported them well, it would only be a couple of percent of the whole … overall science budget. What I was really trying to do was to say, “Look, scientists are often only productive and very creative for a rather limited time in their lives.”

Maybe from the age of 30 on to, to 50 or 45. And during that time, when you’ve got somebody who’s really good, who’s really doing well, reduce the bureaucracy of going for grants in lots of different sorts of ways … give them a certain sum of money which allows them to run a reasonable sized research group, assess them on what they’ve done in the past, rather than what they want to do in the future and if they’ve done well in the past, that immediate past … that usually means the immediate future is good, that reduces the amount of sort of … hmm … assessments and so on you have to do and just let them get on with it.

And when they stop being so productive, you turn the money off and they go back to the usual sort of way of operating.

It was just a way of trying to protect those who are at the best part of their career so that they can actually be most productive with the least amount of bureaucracy.

HEFFNER: But there was quite a howl.

NURSE: There was quite a howl. The, the system I’ve just described to you is actually already in existence in the United States with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and I’m a Trustee of that Institute, so I have to declare an interest.

But I think it’s one of the great funding institutions of the world. It identifies about 300 researchers in biomedicine across the whole of the US. So that sort of matches on all sides to about 150, I’d say, in the UK.

But there was a howl because what I think my colleagues possibly misunderstood me as saying is “scrap all the other funding and just fund these elite.” I wasn’t saying that.

What I was saying was “it will only cost 2% or 3% of the total budget, reduce the bureaucracy and we have the rest to fund as normal”.

HEFFNER: Suppose you had been saying what they charge you with saying. Would you be able to defend that?

NURSE: What … to fund the elite scientists, you mean?


NURSE: Well, I do think that … that those who are at the top of their tree in the sense that they are most effective are quite rare. Those that actually really make very significant advances … there’s not many of them … and when you get one you should really, really support them.

And by the way, I’m not suggesting that you make their groups bigger and bigger and bigger. ‘Cause then they’ll get less effective.

All I’m really saying is give them a decent support and then don’t bug them with constant milestones and one little grant after another. Give them a decent amount, let them get on with it and then ask at the end of five years or seven years … what did you do? If you continue to do really good stuff, keep going. If you didn’t, go back to a normal way of funding.

HEFFNER: Now, the … the whole question of … that you take for granted … you repeat this and I’ve heard it so many times.

The productivity, the level of productivity that is high lasts only a certain limited period of time. Is that really true in your experience?

NURSE: Well, productivity can remain high for a longer period of time at a, a good level. But by … really creative productivity … I mean that is really doing something unexpected and unusual … tends to be in the first part of a scientist’s career. Isn’t always the case and biologist tend to do, do it a bit longer on the whole than physicists. ‘Cause there’s something about intuition and experience that allows you to, to push it to older.

That tends to be the case. Now that isn’t always the case … there’s some who manage to be very creative to much later stages in, in their life. Now many scientists remain productive, but … later in life … but they tend to be repeating the same sort of approach and formula that has been successful for them in, in the past.

And I’m particularly interested in those who break from the mold and actually do something new and creative. And that is rarer and it’s usually at the younger end of the spectrum.

HEFFNER: How do you identify that creativity?

NURSE: I use my nose.

HEFFNER: Fair enough.

NURSE: I really use my nose. As a, you, you can strip out … I mean you can get someway just by looking at the conventional metrics of how they’re publishing … where they’re publishing, what people think.

But ultimately, when you, you’ve got it down to a lower number … you speak to them and you use your “nose” and you use judgment.

And what I don’t like so much is when, you know, most institutions, research institutions, they’ll say “Let’s identify an area we’re going to work on, to concentrate on”.

At the moment it might be stem cells, you know. Thirty years ago it would have been monoclonial antibodies … it changes every five or seven years. But, amazingly, we have such short memories …

HEFFNER: Laughter

NURSE: … we never remember that actually it was something else five years ago.

Now a conventional research institution or university will say, “This is the area we have to push. Let’s go out and hire in that area.”

My approach and it’s the one that we used in, in Rockefeller was say if we do that we’re, we’re fishing in a very small pool and usually by the time committees have identified what is the right area to recruit in that area is, is already very well advanced.

What we actually should be doing … instead of fishing just in this one small pond here … we should fish in the entire area, in my … say biomedical science … and just get the most interesting and creative people and say … let … hire them and let them define the area they should be working in. And then you’ll get the areas of the future.

Always go for the individual, always go for the interesting individual … not always the most brilliant, by the way … I mean that helps, but brilliance can get in the way. You can use brilliance to stop yourself doing anything because you can always think of a reason not for doing it.

You actually want somebody who will get things done in a creative and interesting way. And they will create the new fields of the future. And that’s, that’s always been my approach to hiring and this issue of whether you go for a good individual … a good athlete rather than a good position.

If you think of a ball game athlete … do you go for a good athlete or do you go for somebody who is, who’s good in a particular position? I’d always go for the good athlete.

HEFFNER: Well I was wondering, when you talked about the “nose”, that’s how you tell. The “nose” knows all. Of course I was worried how I was going to get to asking you why you say “some of my friend says ‘I’m a Machiavellian bastard’”, and I wondered whether it is the “nose” that does that?

NURSE: Ahem, it could be. If one looks at the bastard Machiavelli, he did have quite a, a big nose. Why Machiavelli? Why a bastard?

Actually, literally I am a bastard. I discovered this only a few years ago when I found out … when I was applying for a Green Card actually here … in the US and I was rejected. Which I was a bit surprised at because I thought I had quite good credentials.

And it turned out they didn’t like my paperwork and that was because my birth certificate did not name my, my parents. It was a perfectly legitimate birth certificate that we had in the UK. Anyway to cut a long story short, I found out that my … the person I thought was my sister … was actually my mother and I was brought up by my grandparents.

And my father is unknown and is still unknown. So I’m literally a bastard.

HEFFNER: What kind of impact has that had upon you, Paul?

NURSE: You know, not as great as one would imagine. I was brought up in a loving family, I had lots of support. My parents … who were my grandparents … gets a bit confusing I have to say … were … and indeed, when we last spoke in 2007 …

HEFFNER: You didn’t know this.

NURSE: … I didn’t know this. Right. But it was … they were a bit elderly, but it was very, very supportive and I would have liked to know who my father was … understandably. But everybody was doing their best for me. You know they thought this was the best outcome … and I came out reasonably normal … so … I don’t blame anybody and I’m, I’m … you know, I’m not in therapy or anything like that. Though when I did go and see my Internist, when he asked me, you know, whether a certain disease … whether my father had suffered from it … from this … and I had to briefly explain this … his first … this being New York … the first thing he said is, “You are under therapy, I hope.”

HEFFNER: (Laughter). You didn’t need it?

NURSE: I didn’t need it, no. I didn’t need that. Machiavellian bastard … I should just finish …

HEFFNER: Yes, indeed.

NURSE: I think actually people say it to me because partly they’re being friendly to me, because you don’t tell your enemies that they’re Machiavellian bastards to their face, you might tell it behind their back.

But telling it to the front is always a good thing. Machiavelli … Machiavelli was a very interesting person who understood the nature of power and decision making.

I do not think in leading institutions that it’s good just to enforce your will. You have to work with the people and that sometimes requires the skills of a Machiavelli.

You just get arguments across and to let people come to their own opinions. So I think people sometimes say that about me because sometimes I go for something … instead of going direct, I go … in a rather long-about way to make sure I’m bringing everybody with me. I think that’s perhaps why, sometimes I’m called Machiavellian …

HEFFNER: That sounds too benign …

NURSE: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: And I don’t know whether you’re making it up or, or not.

NURSE: Well, what else did Machiavelli do? Well in The Prince he sort of advised … I mean he was, of course, more brutal than …

HEFFNER: Than you are.

NURSE: Yeah. Far more brutal. And I, I’m not attracted to his arguments about the only way that a Prince can rule is through fear, for example.

So I’m … I’ve never known anybody who works with me who’s in the least bit fearful of me. So I don’t’ use that part of Machiavelli. But I do … I have read Machiavelli, I think he’s quite an interesting man.

But thinking about his ways of getting to an objective not always in the, in the simplest way … I’m certain he is.

HEFFNER: Sir Paul, let me ask you a question I asked you in between our tapings, so we can discuss it publicly …

NURSE: Hmmmm.

HEFFNER: … in terms of attitudes toward science … I’m terribly aware, you’re terribly aware from your time here that we’re running into the problem of the denial of science and the denial of evidence. We’re becoming more faith based. Is that true in your country as well?

NURSE: I think the influence of faith and religion on, on, on politics, for example, is, is much less in the United Kingdom than it is in the United States. And I also think most of the time scientific issues … which are very complex to do with GM, crops, nuclear power, stem cell research and so on … tend to be handled a little bit better there.

Not always GM crop debate … discussion went very wrong in, in, in the UK. But I do think that religion has less of an effect. It may be … and this is … this is a completely unexpected outcome.

In the US religion is completely disestablished. It has no …


NURSE: … role … you understand this better than me … in government. Now the British Constitution … if it has a Constitution is extraordinarily old fashioned and ridiculous … you know we still have hereditary peers .. I mean which have a … I mean it’s absolutely absurd.

But we have an established church. So Bishops of the Church of England sit in the House of Lords. I mean it’s absolutely absurd.

But the Church of England barely knows what it believes. In fact that’s one of the great attractions of the Church of England. It is, indeed, the definition of the broad church. And so what we sort of have is an established religion, but one which is so broad and rather vague that it doesn’t offend too many people. And in the end that seems to work a little better than having made rather intensely sets of groups … are really trying to influence politics. And by getting together and being real ginger groups and lobbying and so … we just don’t have that sort of thing in the same way.

HEFFNER: I wondered, going back to the question of needing to meet your paymaster … the public … and convincing the public of what you need … whether that’s less true in England. Whether … I … I’m so old fashioned as to have the picture of an English aristocracy …

NURSE: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … and of less of a democracy. Less of a “the people yes …the people shall judge” … and I wondered whether than plays any role in England or whether my observation is totally off.

NURSE: Well, you know, I don’t quite know the answer to this. Because America does have a vigorous democracy, but it seems to suffer from great ossillations in views and opinions … as … there, there’s always great strength of opinion … in … on, on different sides.

And I think that’s sometimes difficult to have a good discussion. In England we tend to be more sanguine, I suppose. It, it …there’s less of that, that … those extremes.

I personally, as I said, blame the weather. I think that … you know, English weather is never too hot, never too cold, never rains that much … though rains quite a lot in small amounts.

In this great nation here … laughter … the weather is rather more extreme. You know, we get 18 inches of snow … just like that in New York and it’s always cleared out in three hours.

We get three inches of snow in London and we’re, we’re down for five days. It just shows you we can’t deal with extremities. And I actually think that has somehow fed over the millennia into our … the way that we work … we are less excitable and that may mean … although democracy isn’t quite as built into our system, as you say … in a way it … the democracy is allowed to work better because it’s not influenced so much by …those with extreme opinions.

HEFFNER: Well, what will the new government, in England, to the degree that it survives … what will it do vis-à-vis science?

NURSE: Well, that’s been very interesting because they’ve had these massive cuts of public spending which I’m sure you and your viewers are, are very aware of.

And initially when they talked about the science “spend” they were talking about 25%, even 40% cut in public spending on science.

And to give them their credit, they listened to scientists, including me … I had lots of discussions and we’ve come out with zero percent cut. We are almost the best protected activity in the United Kingdom. I mean … amazing.

So the science budget … it will get hit by inflation … so I’m not saying it’s not …


NURSE: … there won’t be an impact there. But compared with nearly every other activity in Britain … research science has been totally protected.

So they did listen to us over there. And so I’m optimistic they will continue to listen in the coming years.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s why I wonder whether science … the vioice of science is louder, more distinct, more upper class …

NURSE: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: … than here in this country.

NURSE: Well, I’m not very upper class, I have to say. I mean I certainly was part of that voice. So I don’t think it’s aristocracy and so on. I sort of think it’s … it’s like afternoon tea … you know … people sit around and they talk politely. I mean I do honestly think that happens. It isn’t quite so extreme and that does allow you to get through difficult issues and it does allow people to change their minds because they haven’t pitched themselves too strongly in one particular place or another.

So I think there’s something about complex issues and getting good solutions to complex issues, which science often is … by having this very measured approach. And I think that does fit with how we work in the UK.

HEFFNER: And how does that impact upon your new responsibility in the new center?

NURSE: It, it impacts enormously. I’ve two jobs. One is President of our Society which is the, the National Academy of Science and … founded in 1660 … actually, in a sense the sort of founding of modern science occurred through, through the Royal Society.

And that organization has a huge impact on public policy with respect to science. The National Academy here, which is the equivalent … also does.

But the National Academy is funded directly by government and it’s sort of half in and half out of the tent with respect to government.

The Royal Society is completely independent … they’re not civil servants, not employed by the government … actually I’m not paid at all, but that’s another peculiar British phenomenon … to put people into important positions and then, then not pay them.

But what happens there is that we can be critical of the government and they know we can because we’re not subject to their payment and we’re seen as totally independent. And that’s a really important role. And the issues we’re talking about, the Royal Society has a big impact.

The other job, which is setting up a biomedical research institute … there I also have to talk to politicians, but this time they are my paymaster … I mean they’re not the only paymaster …

HEFFNER: But they’re good paymasters.

NURSE: They are good paymasters, they are supporting us. Actually I’m supported in a very interesting way. The Institute I’m setting up, which is big, 1,500 scientists in one research building … very interactive, behind the British Library, next to Saint Pancras, the Euro-Star connection … beautiful central London location … it’s funded by four organizations at the moment.

The Medical Research Council, which is like NIH, one step removed from government. Cancer Research UK, a private funding raising, not-for-profit. The Wellcome Trust which is also private, not-for-profit, but working on an endowment, the university … University College, London.

And all four of them are funding it. And what that means is nobody is in charge, they all have to work together. And that is actually … most people would say, “how can this work?”

It would be like … if it was America … it would be getting NIH working with the American Cancer Society, working with Howard Hughes, working with Harvard. I mean that would last about half an hour, I would say.

And for some reason that has worked and it’s given a very solid and very resolute sort of a structure for making this Institute.

HEFFNER: And what will the Institute focus on?

NURSE: The Institute will not focus on anything. Which is actually its key to success. Except brilliance and, and real quality. So what’s going to drive it, is … we’re going to … identify the best scientists we can … in … throughout the world … and let them come and for a period of time work out what they want to work on. And it’s going to have a very strange structure … strange for most ilnsitutions.

What we’re going to do is have two-thirds of the scientists … there’ll be about 120 research groups … so 80 of them …

HEFFNER: 120 groups?

NURSE: 120 groups … something of that order … okay … big …

HEFFNER: Big is right.

NURSE: Yes. And of those … 80 will be in non-tenured positions for a period of up to 12 years. Two six year successive periods. Enough time to actually get significant work done. And what the purpose of the Institute is, is to take young people … age 30, 28 … something like that, relatively young and help them during their most creative, but most vulnerable period of their life to actually really produce the best they can. And at the end of that time, we then help place them somewhere else.

So, unlike Harvard or Rockefeller … instead of trying to hang on to your best people, we train our best people and then we inhabit other institutions in the country … constant turnover and we act as a feeder for the rest of the nation.

Then the other 40 will be mature, good scientists who help mentor those 80. So it’s like a big nursery, if you’ll forgive the pun … a nursery for scientists who will then push out into the rest of the, of the country.

I don’t know of any other institution that operates quite like that. But it acts as a sort of national support for the biomedical research endeavor rather than the usual model, you know with Harvard competing with Rockefeller, competing with Yale and so on … hanging on to the best people. We’re saying “no”, we’ll train the best people, we’ll let them develop as scientists and support them and then we’ll help put them somewhere else. And then we’ll do it again.

HEFFNER: Is this totally novel?

NURSE: Almost completely novel, not quite. In the sense that EMBL, European Molecular Biology Laboratory, has these shorter term positions … it’s seven to none years rather than 12, but it doesn’t help place people elsewhere.

Cold Spring Harbor, I mean where Jim Watson …


NURSE: … worked for a very long time … now run by Bruce Stillman. Also tends to push people out after they’ve been there for some time. But doesn’t play the role of actually trying to place them in good places. It doesn’t actually sort of, ahem, that, that extra steps in quite the same way as I’m imaging for this new Institute.

HEFFNER: Science. This has always been your, your thing.

NURSE: My passion … yeah.

HEFFNER: How did it develop?

NURSE: I’m … it came about really from a, a burning curiosity about the nature world around me. I mean … so it really started when I was a child … I mean it started with an interest in natural history and astronomy, just by looking at the world. You know walking around in a park and looking at insects and birds and plants and spider’s webs and asking like, “why, why are spiders webs where they are in the garden? You know, why do some plants have bigger leaves and other smaller leaves and how does that relate to the sun?” And looking at the moon and wondering what these gray areas were on the moon … and I have a little telescope and can see the mountains and craters and the rings of Saturn.

So it started with observational natural history and, and astronomy, just observing the world. And then wanting to understand how it all worked. So it, it … I’m still interested in … I still have a telescope actually … I don’t … I’m not a serious … I mean I get it out and I look at the, at the planets … and I look at a galaxy and I think, “Amazing that galaxy is 50 million light years away … that little smudge of light that I’m looking at in my telescope … in Manhattan … where I used to live … it took 50 million years for that light to get to my eye. I mean … one, you can’t help but wonder.

HEFFNER: So curiosity didn’t kill the cat … made him a great scientist and I appreciate you’re joining me today, once again, Sir Paul Nurse.

NURSE: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: 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.