Last Wednesday, the Jubilee Lecture Theatre hosted an annual lecture given by Sir Paul Nurse, one of the most distinguished scientists in the UK. You do not get the privilege to hear such an individual very often. Indeed in addition to being the president of the Royal Society, he is also overseeing the development of the Francis Crick institute, which will open in 2015 and is expected to become one of the main research centres in the UK. Amongst other various prestigious prizes, Sir Paul Nurse won the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine, which he shared in 2001.
Sir Paul Nurse talked to a diverse crowd comprising silver-haired professors and bright-faced students. Every member of the audience drank in his words as he talked about how science could work best in society.
He addressed many of the problems faced by modern science. For instance, he advocated for more partnerships between the public and the private sector, and he pointed to the beneficial effects of the symbiosis between inventors and entrepreneurs that existed during the industrial revolution. According to him, the problem of modern entrepreneurs is that they are often not allowed to fail. A healthier approach would allow them to start again. This possibility of a second chance would act as a catalyst for innovation.
But the picture of science painted was not one where the discipline exists only to serve society. It was described as being one of the noblest human endeavours. He fondly cited a reply to an American politician asking if a particle accelerator would help fight communism. The response went as follows: “no, but it will make this country worth fighting for”.
A sobering description of the difficulty of science was also given. The realistic and ominous sentence “if you are at the cutting edge, you will fail a lot” was uttered. So too was a description of the scientist who has similarities with a bohemian artist; a passion for the subject so great that he does not, and should not, expect materialistic rewards.
Sir Paul Nurse did sound some alarms about the state of science in the UK. He rightly pointed out the outrageous fact that science teachers in middle school are not required to have any qualifications in their subject anymore. He deplored the fact that research was still a very low fraction of government spending, although he warned scientists against making promises if more money was available. He gave the example of the director of the National Institute of Health, who promised to cure cancer if spending was increased.
We live in a rapidly changing world and the promises of online peer-reviewed journals and crowd sourcing are slowly being realised, as well as the involvement of thousands of people across the internet to gather data on everything (from water quality to protein shapes).
The wide availability of knowledge on the internet means that anyone can become a scientist, and there has been a boom in free online universities. This raises challenges and opportunities. It could bridge the gap between inventors and researchers, which Sir Paul Nurse described, challenging the traditional idea of a small group of scientists working alone in a lab, and who knows? Maybe we are about to experience the dawn of the second “industrial” revolution.