The Nobel? It's all about learning to say 'no'

December 21, 2001

How does life change after the announcement of a Nobel prize? Paul Nurse, one of this year's laureates, describes the whirlwind

I had more than 1,000 emails in the couple of weeks after the announcement. I get two to three invitations a day to give talks and go to places to receive awards. It is overwhelming." Paul Nurse is speaking in a ten-minute phone interview between engagements, a slot booked three weeks in advance.

It is a month since he, his colleague Tim Hunt and Leland Hartwell, an American cancer researcher, were named this year's Nobel laureates in physiology or medicine "for their discoveries of key regulators of the cell cycle". Their research has caused an outpouring of optimistic articles suggesting that we may soon have cancer on the run.

The Imperial Cancer Research Fund press office has helped field requests, and Nurse has the advice of other laureates ringing in his ears: "The one thing you have to do is learn to say 'no'."

Not only does he have his research to do, but he is also director-general of the ICRF, which is in the final stages of a merger with the Cancer Research Campaign to consolidate both organisations' lobbying power. The final decision on the merger came on the day the Nobels were awarded.

But Nurse is "just about managing" and is still able to get some research done.

Unlike some laureates, who have emphasised the burden of the prize, Nurse - at least for the moment - views it as an opportunity to get exposure for subjects he feels strongly about, for instance, understanding how science relates to government policy and society. Nurse chairs the Royal Society's Science in Society Committee.

"Science is complicated and there are dangers if people do not understand where it comes from," he says, adding that science also needs to listen to the public. "There is a risk that we become detached and no longer aware of the issues that bother the public."

The ICRF, being 100 per cent funded by the public, is a good place in which to conduct that process. To Nurse, the main concerns are over who is funding science and controlling the scientific agenda.

Academic scientists tend to be more independent, he says, but they need to guard that freedom. "It is important to have separate and independent research, and universities should be careful that private industry does not take over the agenda." But he adds: "No science is entirely neutral. Everyone has an axe to grind. The intellectual community has to engage with these issues."

Mandy Garner

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