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Paul Nurse: From waking the nation up to building a world-class research institute

by Simon Shears | Analysis

27 December 2012

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Professor Sir Paul Nurse

Professor Sir Paul Nurse, director of the new Francis Crick Institute

If you regularly wake up to Radio 4’s Today Programme, you might have heard a special edition edited by Professor Sir Paul Nurse this morning. A former CEO of Cancer Research UK, Professor Nurse is director of the Francis Crick Institute which, when it opens in 2015 will be a world-leading centre of medical research and innovation.

Cancer Research UK scientists will work at the Institute, alongside researchers from the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and three London universities – Imperial College, King’s College and UCL – who will be carrying out research to help cure the most common and deadly diseases – including cancer, heart and neurodegenerative diseases.

We caught up with Sir Paul just after he’d been interviewed by Today Programme presenter John Humphrys, to find out about his hopes for his editorial stint and his vision for the Francis Crick Institute:

“I was really pleased to be asked by the BBC to guest edit the Today programme. All my life Today has been my prism into news in the world.

It’s a great programme and I have to say I did I find it a bit daunting to cover all the areas we included. But I had free rein and included lots of science orientation that the programme normally wouldn’t!   I’m trying to put together a number of items that reflect different aspects of science and luckily, as guest editor and a scientist, they’re indulging me.”

One of the issues you discussed was how science is reported in the media, what are the issues you think need addressing?

“John Humphrys came to visit me in my lab at the London Research Institute and we talked about the work going on here and how science is reported in the media. One real issue in the reporting of science is the media’s desire for ‘balance’. Scientists usually, not always, have a very good consensus opinion on the world – certainly on the areas that have been worked on for some time. But the press, and the BBC in particular, like to have balance and another opinion there, even when it’s only supported by very few scientists and the evidence and data for it is very poor.

Explaining to John this problem was something he found interesting. The media can seek to create balance by putting two people against each other to argue it out and that can sometimes distort how science is communicated to the public.

One thing we talked about was the MMR vaccine. In the end science won, but because of a minority view from someone who’s a bit of a maverick scientist, there was a drop in the number of children being vaccinated to under 80 per cent putting young children’s lives at risk.  ‘Science’ was overwhelmed by the emotive and personal stories of mothers who thought that their children had got autism as a result of the jab.

This is something we have to worry about – if you want balance you can put lives at risk.”

As John toured your lab he spoke to one of your young researchers. Nurturing the talent of young researchers is one of your visions of the Francis Crick Institute, can you tell me more:

“When John looked round the lab I think he was struck by the youth of my colleagues. Most people who work in labs are in their 20s and early 30s and that is going to be a feature of the Francis Crick Institute into which the London Research Institute will merge.

We’re positioning the Crick for younger researchers who are at their more creative stages of their career but also more vulnerable. In a way, I see that the role of me and my more senior colleagues is to try and help them through this stage so that their creativity and energy can be used in the most effective way and we can get them properly started in their careers. It’s a real focus on the younger researcher, getting them trained properly and letting them get on with their lives having learnt how science works.”

How is the building of the Francis Crick going?

“There are two aspects of the Francis Crick Institute – one is the building and the other is a big merger of existing institutes and changing our culture of research.

The building isn’t due to open till 2015, but if you go down today it looks as if it’ll be open next year as we’ve already built about three floors above ground and only have another three floors on the top left to go. The structure of the building will be up by next year but it is such a complicated building – one of the most complicated buildings in London – that it’ll take a couple more years before it’s kitted out and we’re ready to move in. But it’s all on time and on budget and is going very well.

The next part we’re gearing up to is a merger between Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute, the MRC Mill Hill institute and an expansion beyond those into the major universities in London. We’re establishing who’s going into the building, the interactions that there are going to be and getting the culture right that will be different that currently exist in the two institutes and the universities. That is long and complicated and will take a number of years to put in place.”

Cancer Research UK has pledged £160 million towards the cost of the institute – how is the fundraising going?

“The budget for this is large – there’s the capital to construct the building and the running costs. The two buildings that are being replaced are very old – I’m here in the LRI that was put up in the 1950s and early 60s while the Mill Hill building was built in the 1930s and 40s. They need to be replaced. They’re tired, they’re old and not fit for purpose.

Just like you would need to replace a University building every 40 years, that’s where we are at now. It’s a capital investment, but it’s an investment for the next 70 to 100 years. Most of the money for this is in place but Cancer Research UK’s contribution is coming from fundraising. We need to raise £100 million and we’re doing pretty well. Between £20 to £30 million is the amount that has been pledged so far.

When it comes to the running money, what we’re doing is merging the two budgets for Cancer Research UK’s LRI and MRC’s Mill Hill labs along with some money from the universities. All the money that is going into it is money that is already being spent at the moment. This is money that isn’t being taken from other parts of the country, but money that is already spent in London.”

You can listen again to Sir Paul Nurse’s stint as editor of the Today Programme on the BBC website.