Laureates Around the Nation
Interview with Nobel Laureate Dr. Paul Nurse, President, Rockefeller
Education Update (EU): As
the 2001 Nobel Prize winner for medicine (along with Dr.
Tim Hunt and Dr Leland Hartwell, an American), as a Fellow
of the Royal Society, and at the time as chief executive
of Cancer Research in the UK, what considerations led to
your leaving the UK to take up the position of president
of The Rockefeller University?
Dr. Paul Nurse (PN): Rockefeller
University obviously has an enormous reputation, and research
conducted here has had a huge impact on science and medicine.
For example, the discovery of blood groups, that a virus
can cause cancer, that DNA is the chemical basis of heredity,
are but three of the many discoveries that have helped improve human life.
I’d like to help continue that tradition into the 21st century by attracting
the best talent and encourage young people to take on the most challenging
have stated to recent graduates that “science transcends all cultural
barriers within the world” but recent studies in this
country point to a growing fundamentalism on the part of
those who would excise Darwin (et al.) from school texts
and require teachers in some states to give equal weight
to creationism. What would you say to educators about this
growing trend and is there similar expression in the UK?
PN: In the U.K. and Europe, there is real mistrust
among the public about genetically modified foods, which
I don’t observe in the U.S. In
contrast, in the U.S. the disturbing pressure to give evolution, creationism
and intelligent design equal weight is not an issue in the U.K. and Europe.
An important aspect of both problems is lack of public understanding of science
and of good engagement between the public and scientists. Sometimes minority
groups with rather extreme views end up having an inappropriate impact on these
EU: Reasonably, what
might be done to encourage a more scientifically literate
general public at a time when science seems increasingly
so complex and specialized?
PN: Scientists have a responsibility to the public
that goes beyond their science. Scientists must engage the
public in a dialogue so that people can understand and make
informed decisions about scientific advances that affect
society, such as genetically modified foods or embryonic
stem cell research. This dialogue should include public policy
makers. Scientists need to
listen better to the general public.
have read that your own achievements are all the more remarkable
for your having come from modest beginnings. Who were the
major influences (or mentors) in your life? You spoke of
Imperial Cancer Research Fund taking you on “as a young scientist
with a mission to understand the biology of cancer.” What
prompted this sense of “mission?”
PN: Very early in my education, while I was at grammar school, I had a
wonderful biology teacher who encouraged his pupils to study natural history
and to do real experiments. As an undergraduate, I had a tutor who was hugely
stimulating and entertaining, and although sometimes wrong was always wrong
in an interesting way. He taught me the value of the alternative view. During
my Ph.D. studies, my supervisor was an enormous influence. He was a great experimentalist
and I rapidly learned the need for good experiments to make any progress at
all in a research project. And my postdoc supervisor was pivotal for my entire
research career. He gave me both complete support and total freedom.
I emphasize my mentors at all stages of my career because they enthused in
me the passion to do high quality science, to honestly pursue the truth wherever
that might lead. This is what I have tried to do with my studies of cell biology
your new duties as president of The Rockefeller University
interfere in what we have heard are some of your abiding
and motorcycle riding?
PN: Unfortunately, flying and motorcycling have taken a backseat to
my duties as president, but I still find time to keep them up and to pursue
my more relaxing hobby of looking at the stars with a telescope. #