Q&A with Sir Paul Nurse

We speak to the Royal Society president and director of the Francis Crick Institute. Plus the latest higher education appointments

November 28, 2013

Source: Rex Features

It is now just over a year until one of the most exciting projects in UK research - the £700 million Francis Crick Institute in central London - is set to open its doors. Its director is Royal Society president and Nobel prizewinning cell biologist Sir Paul Nurse.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Norfolk in 1949.

How has this shaped you?
Being born in Norfolk was something of a quirk of fate. My grandparents were from there but they had moved to Wembley in London. When my mother found herself unmarried and pregnant, she was taken by my grandmother to stay with relatives in Norwich for the last few months of the pregnancy. When I was born, I was brought back to London and presented as my grandmother’s child.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
I’m not sure that I would want to change much about where I am today, so I would tell myself to trust my own instincts.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
Charles Darwin, not only a great scientist but also a great communicator. On the Origin of Species is a beautifully written book.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
Overseeing the development of the Francis Crick Institute is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There’s not really a downside, although a few extra hours in the day would be helpful.

What keeps you awake at night?
Looking at the stars – I am a keen amateur astronomer.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A scientist. As a nine-year-old, I watched Sputnik 2 as it sped across the night sky over Wembley. That experience, combined with a fascination for looking at nature all around me as I walked to school, meant I was hooked from an early age.

Tell us about a book, show, film or play that you love.
Zeno of Bruges by Marguerite Yourcenar: a tribute to how the light of reason can prevail in the darkness of irrationality.

What do you do for fun?
I fly. There are few things I enjoy more than piloting a glider or, on occasion, the 1934 Boeing-Stearman biplane that I get to fly.

If you were to move overseas for work, where would you go?
I only returned from New York in 2010 so I’m staying put for now. As president of Rockefeller University I got to live in one of only two detached houses over the East River in Manhattan (the other is Gracie Mansion), so it would be hard to top that. Having said that, the Americans officially referred to me as an “alien of extraordinary ability”, which I was never quite sure about.

To what, or whom, do you feel most allegiance?
My family – I recently became a grandfather for the first time.

What was your first thought when you were told you had won the Nobel prize?
That someone was playing a trick on me.

Will the Francis Crick Institute change the world?
I feel certain it will. When it opens in 2015, there will be a great focus on collaboration and interdisciplinary approaches. While you can never predict what research will ultimately throw up, it will open opportunities for advancing science in a unique way.



Nora Kearney has been announced as the new head of school and professor of cancer care in the School of Health and Social Care at the University of Surrey. Professor Kearney takes up her position in January 2014.

Daniel E. Feder has been named managing director of private markets at the Washington University Investment Management Company – the investment office for the endowment at Washington University in St Louis.

The University of Greenwich has announced the promotion of four senior managers to deputy pro vice-chancellor positions. Liz Bacon, Sarah Greer and Neil Spiller have been appointed in the new Faculty of Architecture, Computing and Humanities, while Chris Philpott takes up his new role in the Faculty of Education and Health.

Alister McGrath, professor of theology, ministry and education and head of the Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture at King’s College London, has been appointed to the Andreas Idreos professorship in science and religion at the University of Oxford with effect from 1 April 2014.

Middlesex University has appointed graphic designer Phil Cleaver as professor in the creative industries in their School of Art and Design. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and artistic director of the Type Archive.

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