Paul Nurse: research relies on ‘freedom of action and movement’

‘Artificial barriers’ such as Brexit ‘should be resisted‘, Nobel laureate tells event hosted by King’s College London

September 4, 2017
Paul Nurse speaks at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit

Trying to rush through the translation of research discoveries into practical applications can harm the scientific process, according to Sir Paul Nurse.

Speaking at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit, the Nobel laureate added that research “thrives” when scientists are free to pursue their interests.

“To rush into translation may result in becoming lost in translation,” he said at the event, hosted by King’s College London between 3 and 5 September.

Sir Paul, who is the chief executive and director of the Francis Crick Institute in London, added that there is a danger that direction is “applied too early” with some translational activities, which are designed to bridge the divide between curiosity research and the application of research to develop new products and processes.

If policies direct research to achieve a specific objective too soon, scientists may not respond to the self-correcting mechanisms that are “crucial” for the scientific process, he explained. 

Examples of these self-correcting mechanisms are when “research changes direction as a consequence of new data, ideas and hypotheses”. Missing these cues leads to "wasting effort to the ultimate detriment of the long-term objectives”, he added.

“A researcher who is too strongly directed, or whose thoughts are restrained is unlikely to be fully effective in research. Similarly, in my view, societies which do not encourage freedom will find it hard to excel in research,” Sir Paul said.

The joint winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine continued: “A major pillar for promoting excellence is the empowerment of the individual researcher, and whenever possible to minimise top-down programmatic interference.”

The research systems that are most effective at producing knowledge for the public good “are characterised by freedom of action and movement”, he said. “There needs to be permeability and fluidity, allowing the ready transfer of ideas, skills and people in all directions between the different sectors, research disciplines and various parts of the research endeavour,” he added.

"Artificial barriers which reduce permeability or mutual respect between the different parts of the system, and I think Brexit is an example, should be resisted, as they reduce the effectiveness of the research system – both to produce knowledge and for the effective use of that knowledge for applications,” Sir Paul said.

“Research systems thrive on excellent research scientists who are strongly motivated, most often by a great curiosity and by freedom to pursue their intellectual interests,” he added.

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