A top scientist very often moves on the edge of failure, says Nobelist Nurse

He won the Nobel Prize quite young: he was fifty-two. Today he is Director of the largest biomedical institute in Europe, works as a scientific advisor to the EU, still runs his laboratory and also comments on politics. Having just been awarded an honorary degree at Brno’s Mendel University, geneticist Sir Paul Nurse referred to the legacy of Mendel several times, with great respect. According to Sir Paul, the Czech Republic doesn’t show one of the world’s greatest researchers as much respect as he deserves.

Read the interview in Czech translation here.

He was brought up in the family of blue-collar workers in northwest London. Sir Paul Nurse’s journey to the Nobel Prize began on long, regular walks to and from primary school over rough terrain, when he observed changes in the natural world around him. Although he developed a passion for biology, after he finished at secondary school, he was not allowed to go on to university: having failed the exam in French repeatedly, he did not have the compulsory basic foreign language qualification. So, aged 17 he started work as a laboratory technician at the local Guinness brewery. When at last he made it to university, it was a revolutionary occurrence in his non-academic family – all other members finished school at 15. “It opened my eyes to the world of all the possibilities. I have loved university ever since, and research has become the biggest passion in my life,” said the geneticist and director of the biggest centre of biomedicine in Europe, the Francis Crick Institute. Sir Paul’s Nobel Prize is for discoveries which help cure cancer, his knighthood for services to cancer research. 

Because of his interest in genetics, the life of Paul Nurse has long been connected to the Czech Republic, Brno in particular. He first visited Brno, where Mendel conducted his ground-breaking research and laid the foundations of genetics, in the 1980s. His most recent visit was at the end of January 2020, when he was awarded an honorary degree at Brno’s Mendel University.  

We are talking after the ceremony at Brno’s Mendel University at which you were awarded an honorary doctorate. Of course, it is not the first honorary doctorate you have received. But you said that it is an enormous pleasure for you. Why?
It is very special to be here in Brno again. I first came to Brno in 1981 and it was still the Cold War. I am a geneticist, so I came here to see the place where Mendel created the science of genetics. I visited the monastery, the small Mendel Museum, I even visited his grave. And it was a great moment for me. I have come back a number of times over the years. The last time, in 2015, I came here to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the presentation of Mendel’s famous paper (in which he describes the rules of heredity, later known as the Laws of the Mendelian Inheritance – Ed.). So, to receive an honorary degree from Mendel University gave me enormous pleasure. When I received the letter, I think I had a tear in my eye. And I had another tear in my eye listening to the string trio performing Dvořák right now. 

You consider Mendel one of the greatest scientists of all time. How do we in Czechia honour the legacy of Gregor Mendel?
I have the feeling that he is not as well celebrated in his homeland as he should be. I don't quite know why. And I think you, the media, should shout from the rooftops about how important Mendel was and is for biology. And maybe it is a long-term hangover of the time of Lysenko (Lysenko was a Soviet biologist who rejected Mendelian genetics – Ed.).

In your speech during the ceremony, you talked about your family and the fact that your path to science was not always easy. What do you consider to be the most important step in your academic career?
I have been researching for nearly fifty years. As was mentioned at the ceremony, I had a very good teacher at school who really encouraged me. Then I worked in the laboratory at Guinness; at 17, I was already doing experiments. I didn’t get to university because I failed a very basic examination in French, six times. This, I think, is a world record. And I was very lucky. But what is really critical is the passion for curiosity. You need to want to know the answer, and it has to invade your whole being. And you need it passionately because if you work at the boundaries of knowledge, which is where a researcher should be, you will frequently fail. Now in my laboratory I get the best graduate students you could imagine. Unlike me, they have passed every examination with an A+. They spent one month in my lab and they fail, for the first time in their lives. Because now they are struggling with the frontiers of knowledge, so of course they will fail. And it is my job to help them through that. And you can only continue with it if you have a passion for curiosity.

So failure is closely connected to research? A few weeks ago, in her first tweet of 2020, Nobel Prize-winning American scientist Frances Arnold announced that she had retracted her latest paper, published in the journal Science about six months ago. She had retracted because the results were not reproducible. Was Professor Arnold right to do this?
She was right to retract the paper. We all make mistakes and we only need to admit them when they happen. If it is fraud, that's a different question. But it simply is not, and I know it for sure. Particularly in biology and biomedicine, the material is very variable and difficult to work with and it is not always reproducible. And it has nothing to do with fraud, it has all to do with the difficulty of the science. Unfortunately, the media to some extent and some in society simply don't recognize this. So they say always, this is fraud. Arnold was right to do it and brave to advertise it, and we should respect her for doing it.

Like Francis Arnold, you have won a Nobel Prize. At 52, you were quite a young winner. Having received such a prize, how do you keep yourself motivated?
For a biologist, I got the prize rather young, so this meant I had a proper job and the research I wanted to do. And actually, it has been difficult to balance all those things because I run a research laboratory, I run an institute, I do political things, and having a Nobel Prize is like having another job.

How?
You are invited to everything and everywhere, and unlike here you are usually a table decoration, just because you have a Nobel Prize.

Even so, what did you feel after you won the Prize?
You know, there is a story related to Brno when I heard about the Nobel Prize. I was in a meeting in London with Jim Watson and we were discussing how we could raise money to help the Mendel Museum and also the design of the museum. I then received a message from the outer office of the place I was at, which was an architect’s office. Because although I had a mobile phone, being over 50 I hardly ever had it on. When I did switch it on, I had a recorded message from somebody with a heavy Swedish accent which I could not fully understand. Originally, I thought that they were asking me to comment on the winner of the Nobel Prize that year. It was only on listening for a second time that I realized I was one of the winners of the Nobel Prize. So, I went back to the room where they were still discussing the Mendel Museum and said something rather stupid. I said: I have to go to my lab now because I think I may have won a Nobel Prize. So, my discussion about the Mendel Museum stopped there. This is all true.

You are Director of a biomedical institute specialized in basic research. What would you say are the main topics in biomedicine today?
I’m always reluctant to answer questions like this. We at our institute, as you rightly say, are focused on discovery of the new, and I’d like to think we look over the horizon. I have learnt over many years that the last people to ask what the future is going to bring are people with white hair. I rely on youth for that. So, when I advertise for a faculty position at my institute, I advertise in all areas. We have 300 applications for each position, and I have the privilege to choose the most interesting person. And I tell you this is the most efficient way to look over the horizon. It is much more efficient than to listen to people like me. When you get closer to an application, I think your question is easier to answer. For applications I would talk about gene therapy, about stem cells, about gene modification and so on.

Could you name a project you have chosen recently?
I like one project which is strange. I hired a person, whose research is late human evolution. Over the past ten thousand years, we have had an agricultural revolution with changes in diet. We have also had urbanisation, with crowding of people in towns and cities, with consequences for infectious diseases. So, the research traces genetic changes in real time with ancient bones, during agricultural revolutions and urbanisation across the world. A number of important diseases we suffer from now are consequences of massive dietary change from a hunter-gatherer society to cereal crops and from small hunter groups to towns and cities. So I think we may learn something about the genetic changes that occur regarding these two major changes in the course of civilisation. I don’t think any committee would have thought up such a project.

You say no committee would have thought up such a project. What is the measure of research quality?
That is a very difficult question. Of course, there are traditional ways, such as number of publications and so on. But sometimes it is like judging the quality of wine – it is a matter of taste. When you meet a young researcher and you read what they are doing and listen to what they are saying, sometimes you just know it is quality. I know this isn't a satisfactory answer, but I know a good scientist and a good project when I see them. And I don’t always know why.

We are talking about science. But science does not live in a vacuum. It is influenced by the current political situation. Today is 31 January, which the media are calling Brexit Day. As a Brit, how do you see the situation today?
I'm personally an ardent supporter of the EU, so for me this is a day of great sadness. I campaigned strongly against Brexit for the last two years, and failed. But given that 90 percent of scientists and intellectuals think that Brexit is a bad thing and 80 percent of voters under 30 are against Brexit, how do political leaders in the UK expect to lead a country in the future without support from intellectuals and youth? They have no answer to this question, of course. It is an illustration of the poverty of political leadership that has brought my country to where it is.

Could you be specific about the effect Brexit will have on your institute?
I’m director of an institute in London, which I founded, comprising 1800 people, 1400 of them scientists. It is the largest biomedical research institute in Europe under one roof. Over 40 percent of our scientists are from the EU, and we have to keep them. And we have to try and encourage those in the EU still to come. Our second key challenge is money. My institute received 12 to 15 million euros each year from the EU, and that is now at risk. Thirdly, we have established strong links and networks throughout continental Europe which were promoted by funds from the European Commission, so they are at risk too.

What would be next steps?
Brexit has meant that we have lost control, power and influence. But now we have to move forwards, we have to work hard at keeping our friends in Europe and keeping doors open. For the time being, I’m one of seven chief scientific advisors of the EU, and for 15 years I advised the Prime Minister and the Cabinet in the UK on science as well. So I hope, if reason begins to prevail, I can play a role in trying to maintain close links for the future. But the problem is that science is never high on the political agenda and the poor behaviour of the UK political leadership has lost friends in continental Europe. And without friendship and cooperation it is difficult to promote a science agenda. But I hope over time, when the political wounds have healed and maybe when a more rational political world returns to the UK, we can move on from the infantile behaviour of the populists, and then maybe we will return to the European Union. It makes no sense to be a medium-sized country with no influence and no power in the global sphere, when we have had a leadership role in one of the most successful groups of nations in the world.

But there remains the Universities UK initiative. If they live up to the statement they released with their European colleagues yesterday, they will work closely with Europe even after Brexit. It may help.
Yes, that is a good thing. But they should have spoken about it before the event rather than after. I was very disappointed that they didn't speak up earlier.

So, should scientists and universities comment on matters which are not in their scientific sphere of interest?
Scientists do need to talk to society, the public and politicians, but we have to accept the fact that not all scientists are very good at it. In fact, the majority of them aren’t. When we find those that are good at it, we really need to encourage them.

We are sitting in Brno, Czech Republic, at a university, talking about Mendel and science. How do you think Czech science is doing?
The Czech Republic, and before that Czechoslovakia, has always had a good, in fact a very good reputation in science. I think there is a natural spirit amongst the Czech people to do science. And since the future of the world should depend on science, I think this puts the Czech people in a good position for the future.