In the autumn of 1957 Russia launched the Sputnik satellites into orbit and beat the Americans into space. The US responded with a raft of investments in scientific research and education, ultimately spearheading a revival in their economy.
A lesser-known consequence of the Sputnik launches took place in Neasden in northwest London. An eight-year-old was so thrilled to observe a pinprick of light gliding across the night sky that he raced down the street in his pyjamas in an ambitious effort to catch up with Sputnik 2. The boy in question was Paul Nurse, and that exhilarating moment ignited an enduring passion for science.
Now, 55 years on from his personal Sputnik moment, Sir Paul Nurse, voted Britain’s most influential scientist in 2010, is doing his utmost to inspire a new boom in British science that he believes will drive the economy.
Nurse is president of the Royal Society; chief executive and director of the Crick Institute (Britain’s upcoming flagship of biomedical research); and a Nobel Prize-winning and influential researcher. Meeting him at the Royal Society, just off the Strand in London, there is no trace of the overworked executive or the self-satisfied overachiever; he looks relaxed in cords and a maroon sweater and immediately launches into an energetic tour of his official residence. The high-ceilinged, elegantly panelled apartment comes as a perk of the presidency and consists of two bedrooms, two reception rooms, a small kitchen and a generous office, all on a single level accessed through the Society offices.
The property serves as a weekday home for Paul and his wife Anne, and as a venue for entertaining important Royal Society guests. The hallway is dominated by shelves loaded with kinetic toys from around the globe. “All my wife’s,” he says, although Nurse takes obvious delight in making a tiny wooden gymnast perform elegant backflips.
Through an attractive bowed door we enter a well-proportioned drawing room, a survivor of successive re-modelings of this John Nash-designed row of early 19th-century neoclassical townhouses. Above the fireplace he has hung a copy of Raeburn’s “The Skating Minister”, a nod to Edinburgh, where he did much of his groundbreaking work to understand what drives cell divisions in yeast and in human cells. Beside it is Gainsborough’s “The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly”, a reminder along with the many fossils and bird models that line the mantelpiece, and the telescopes and weather station on the balcony, of his enthusiasm for natural history. “These paintings are all cheap reproductions, of course,” laughs Nurse, who is not a man who measures his status in worldly possessions.
As he says himself: “I’m a cornflakes and beans-on-toast kind of guy.” And sure enough, a well-used Dualit toaster, strategically placed under the extractor hood to evade the smoke detectors, dominates the apartment’s surprisingly small and outdated galley kitchen.
Back in the drawing room, I notice that the grand Queen Anne-style Royal Society chairs are covered in fleas. Nurse commissioned the surprisingly elegant flea-patterned upholstery when he became president in 2010, in celebration of Robert Hooke, a founding father of the Royal Society and a pioneer of microscopy, who in 1665 coined the term “cell” to describe the basic unit of life.
He is humble about occupying a seat once filled by Sir Christopher Wren, Sir Isaac Newton and Ernest Rutherford: “I can’t compare to these giants that have gone before.” The Royal Society has had an influential role in advising governments and championing science and the scientific method throughout its 350-year history. Nurse, a forceful polemicist, is more than happy to carry forward this responsibility and is always ready to defend the consensus view of scientific experts and to “expose nonsense when it is complete nonsense” on contentious issues, from climate change to GM crops and animal testing.
However, in his other big project it is clear that Nurse is not simply a passive advocate of UK science. The Crick Institute – a £700m suite of biomedical laboratories set to open in London’s King’s Cross area in 2015 – is a project that he has been at the heart of since its inception. His desire to shake up a sometimes complacent research establishment is clear. “The time is right to subject the whole sociology of research to some serious scrutiny, to redraft the rule book and create a truly world-leading institution.”
For a start, there will be an unprecedented emphasis on the development of junior researchers who, Nurse says, “are much more dynamic and creative than us old silverbacks”. The Crick will provide a supportive environment for junior researchers and then, rather than keep their talent to itself, will help match these individuals with other institutions and industries around the UK. By engaging with this process and creating opportunities, the hope is that most will stay in the UK.
As we delve into the Crick’s new strategy, Nurse, perched on the edge of the slightly sagging lemon-yellow sofa, becomes ever more animated. “It will be anarchistic in the best possible way – the individual will have the authority to do what they want,” he says.
The Crick will be unusually permeable to outsiders: non-Crick researchers, funders, industrial scientists and members of the public will be allowed to come and go. The hope is that the exposure to fresh perspectives will boost discovery research and, in an organic and unforced way, support the translational agenda where scientists start to solve real-world problems and contribute more directly to the economy. Those of a more cynical disposition will be pleased to hear Nurse temper this utopian vision by stressing that “it won’t have to be all happy-clappy and collaborative; when you have misanthropes who are very good, you just leave them as misanthropes to do their thing”.
A gap in the April clouds draws us to the huge sash windows and the impressive skyline beyond. At its centre are the towers of Parliament: a place where politicians from all parties are taking this self-made man’s ideas increasingly seriously.
“There is a healthy tension,” Nurse says. “We [the Royal Society] work with the government. There is no point in just slagging them off, but they have to live with our views and know that we can go public on that.”
There is no doubting Nurse’s passion and commitment for his two big administrative roles and his desire to accelerate scientific research in the UK, an activity which, he says, “for reasons I don’t understand, we are fantastically good at, and, if better funded and better structured, we’d absolutely lead the world at”.
Yet at heart, Nurse is a scientist who wants to know how the world works. As our tour reaches his office, Nurse is immediately drawn to two shelves, crammed with a tatty array of A4 notebooks. They hold page after page of cryptic notes and dense, hand-drawn tables of numbers.
“All the primary data are there, right back to 1973 when I started working on yeast genetics,” he explains, adding, with a distinct note of regret, “I don’t get a chance to get my hands dirty in the lab any more.” Nevertheless, unlike most of his contemporaries, Nurse does still make time to run a highly productive laboratory for Cancer Research UK in central London.
And despite all the prestige and influence that come with prizes and presidencies, he doesn’t hesitate to say that if he had to choose to keep doing just one thing, it would be research every time.
“It is easily the most difficult thing I do. It is the pursuit of truth: if you get it wrong, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
The source of Nurse’s prodigious energy is a mystery, even to him: “I am pretty hyperactive and adrenalin-driven. I think there is probably something wrong with me.” Even his hobbies, which include running, motorcycling and piloting light aircraft, don’t sound particularly regenerative.
However, his life-long interest in astronomy and natural history may be what keeps him sane in the face of his professional demands: “I simply like looking at beautiful objects.”
His mantelpieces, shelves and cabinet-tops are populated with artefacts, from a 3.5bn-year-old slab of fossil stromatolites (“one of the oldest living things on the planet”) to a lifelike model sandpiper.
Pride of place, however, goes to his telescopes. An impressively large one is mounted on a tripod on the balcony overlooking The Mall (apparently you can still get a good view of the planets from central London). Another, fitted with solar filters, allows Nurse to observe sunspots and solar flares on the surface of our closest star.