After five years as CRUK’s Chief Scientist, Professor Nic Jones stepped down in February 2016. His time in the job has seen the launch of major new initiatives in funding, which, coupled with the launch of the organisation’s Research Strategy in 2014, have laid a solid foundation for the future of cancer science in the UK.
This progress is in no small part down to Nic’s skill as a scientific emissary into the world of a research funder. That his achievements aren’t perhaps as well known as they could be is part of his success: he’s been the perfect conduit.
A good Chief Scientist has to have the respect of the scientific community and be an accomplished science strategist, but there’s a lot more to it than that. The complexity and scale of our operations can be bewildering, as Nic readily admits: “At the beginning, there was a lot of mutual incomprehension. I soon realised that if I wanted to change things, I had to see myself as part of the organisation, not an outsider.”
And it worked. As Iain Foulkes, Executive Director of Strategy and Research Funding at CRUK, says, “Nic’s outstanding skill as Chief Scientist has been to negotiate the world of CRUK on behalf of the scientific community – he served as a scientific advocate within the organisation incredibly well.” David Scott, Director of Discovery Research and Centres, concurs: “It’s totally different from the environment he’d operated in for his entire career, but he took to it like a duck to water.”
Nic achieved his aims through a combination of forensic thinking and charm, according to David Scott: “Working with Nic was a bit like working in a lab – it was always a debate, a discussion, sometimes pretty heated (Nic can get quite loud when he’s passionate about something), but it was always good humoured. He approached things like a good scientist would: you’re curious, you want to understand why people say things, so you talk stuff through to validate the thinking.” Nic himself puts relationship-building at the heart of his approach: “It’s to do with creating a common understanding. I try to influence people, rather than stamping my feet.”
If you can’t convince colleagues about the validity of an argument then it’s probably wrong anyway.
In his time as Chief Scientist, Nic has driven two major cultural changes at CRUK: staff in the CRUK office engaging more closely with the scientific community, and overturning the perception that basic and clinical research exist in parallel universes. Both these things are crucially important, breaking down barriers to progress, and both would have been a lot harder without Nic in the job.
Increasing engagement and interaction between CRUK and its scientists was something Nic tackled right away as his appointment in 2011 coincided with the launch of consultations for the new Research Strategy. In a way that had never been done before, Nic went out to talk to everyone he could think of, canvassing opinion from both CRUK-funded researchers and the wider community in the UK and overseas, to create scientific consensus. Nic was happily in his element: “There’s nothing better than spending time talking about where we’re at, where the research is going, what the latest excitement is, where the challenges are.”
Perhaps surprisingly for people who saw Nic as a scientist with his roots firmly planted in basic research, his passion for translating ideas into patient benefit has been crucial in the evolution of CRUK’s strategy. Nic has been a really strong advocate of bringing the cultures of basic and clinical research closer together: the idea that the work CRUK funds operates on a continuum; and that the hackneyed phrase ‘from bench to bedside’ can actually mean something.
Dame Nancy Rothwell, one of his close collaborators in the development of the Manchester Cancer Research Centre, an exemplar of the bench to bedside outlook, sums this up perfectly: “He has a vision for what we can deliver in cancer by supporting and bringing together the very best in discovery application and health benefit. He’s a basic scientist, but always thinks about cancer patients.” Peter Johnson, CRUK’s Chief Clinician, agrees: “Nic’s inclinations and instincts are towards the application of basic research, what you can actually do to make a difference to people. He’s managed to take the charity into new areas for how we fund research – that’s been enormously positive for the whole organisation.”
He’s a basic scientist, but always thinks about cancer patients.
—Dame Nancy Rothwell
Both these changes – community engagement, and closing the gap between basic and clinical researchers – played a huge part in the development of our Research Strategy, published in 2014 to widespread enthusiasm. As Sir Harpal Kumar, CRUK Chief Executive, acknowledges: “Of his many outstanding achievements, the formulation, shaping, and implementation of the Research Strategy stands out. The ambition in this strategy owes a great deal to Nic’s contributions.” Unsurprisingly, Nic also feels the strategy is his proudest achievement: “My impression is that the scientific community appreciates having a scientist within the organisation who is able to spend time interacting with and responding to them, and can influence the direction the organisation is taking from a scientific perspective. I’m quite chuffed at that.”
Nic leaves a healthy legacy for his successor, Professor Karen Vousden, but he will be greatly missed in the office. When asked about Nic’s personal qualities, what most people mention, apart from his unreasonable devotion to Manchester United, is the breath of fresh air he brought into the building including his ability to induce giggles in meetings with a strategically raised single eyebrow! But the last word must go to Nic himself: “Being Chief Scientist was an incredible privilege as well as immensely enjoyable. There was an openness that allowed me to get on and do stuff, and it was very, very rewarding. I was always a temporary migrant rather than a permanent settler in the CRUK office, but it was a lot of fun getting to know the team at CRUK better.”
This story is part of Pioneering Research: our annual research publication for 2015/16.