Fair & Square in conversation with the Chief Executive of The Francis Crick Institute

Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse discusses the role of scientists in public affairs, lessons to be learnt from the UK’s response to the Covid pandemic and the liberating power of curiosity in our first Fair & Square podcast of 2023.

Sir Paul is chief executive of The Francis Crick Institute – the world renowned biomedical research centre based in London – and one of the world’s most distinguished geneticists. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001 alongside Leland Hartwell and Tim Hunt for their discoveries of protein molecules that control the division of cells. 

Born in Norfolk and raised in London where he attended Harrow Grammar School, Sir Paul received a degree in biology at the University of Birmingham and a PhD in 1973 from the University of East Anglia. Following a number of academic and research roles, in 2010 he became the first director and chief executive of The Francis Crick Institute and was also President of the Royal Society.

Sir Paul says he has been privileged to have been given the freedom to follow his curiosity and says it is an essential trait – especially in science – that can lead to unimaginable discoveries and applications.

He tells our podcast host Adam Batstone that those government scientists who found themselves in the glare of publicity during the Covid crisis did exceptionally well in very, very difficult circumstances. But he says the government should not have necessarily just prioritised commercial solutions during the crisis.

“We (The Francis Crick Institute) did write to the ministers about that because there was huge capacity lying idle that could have been immediately used for testing that was just absolutely not used. And that was, that was from my perspective, the biggest mistake that was made,” he said.

Although an outspoken critic of Brexit, Sir Paul – who as a member of the UK’s Council for Science and Technology advised Prime Ministers from 2000 to 2015 – says scientists should try to keep as apolitical as possible when it comes to science and scientific advice.
“I primarily think I work in an arena as a scientist in an apolitical way. I express political opinions when we talk about applications and investment into public services and so on.”

He says often the general public don’t realize how science and technology is affecting nearly everything they do. And it’s very important that they do know that because for a healthy society, a healthy democracy, we are increasingly going to have to make decisions that have, are impacted by, science and the applications of science. And we’ve got to work out ways in which we can engage society and the public in general to actually do that.

Describing himself as ‘a jovial optimist’ Sir Paul, who has more than 70 honorary degrees – says: “I think that the way to be an optimist is to identify the problems and solve them and, and not get complacent about them.”