Coronavirus tracing app graphic

‘We were bound to have pandemics’: Sir Paul Nurse, director, Francis Crick Institute

Image credit: University of Oxford

Nobel laureate and director of the Francis Crick Institute, geneticist Sir Paul Nurse discusses his pioneering work in cell research and why the UK simply wasn’t ready for coronavirus, despite “being able to predict it”.

The “tragedy” of coronavirus is that “we could have predicted that we were bound to have pandemics”. What’s more, says Sir Paul Nurse, with world travel connecting the global population of 7.8 billion “easily and quickly”, and with a projected increase to 10 billion by the year 2050, “we are bound to have more. New organisms – particularly viruses, but also bacteria – will travel rapidly around the world.” All of this is obvious, says Nurse, whose new book ‘What is Life?’ has just been published. When it comes to our current health crisis, “with coronavirus we could have been so much better prepared”.

The Nobel Prize winner, who is renowned for his straight-shooting, no-nonsense contributions to public debate on hot-ticket issues such as Brexit and Covid-19, says the UK should simply have been prepared. “Look at the consequences of coronavirus in the UK compared with a country that was prepared, like South Korea, where fatalities have been far fewer. We should have had protective equipment. We should have had testing capability in place, or at least plans for it. We should have had trials in place looking at how things could have worked, paid attention to them and then acted on them. We did none of these and it is frankly a scandal. Not in the sense that we had the pandemic – we were bound to have that – but how poorly prepared we were.”

Nurse believes part of the scientist’s role is to provide the checks and balances in public affairs such as coronavirus. Commenting on the triangular and sometimes fractious relationship between the scientific community, the political sphere and the media, he says: “I don’t think we’ve done particularly well with communication.” The 71-year-old British geneticist goes on to explain that in a recent op-ed he co-wrote with Maurice Saatchi for the Daily Telegraph entitled ‘Government must treat us like grown-ups in its use of “the science”’, the authors contend that, “we are not treating the public like grown-ups. It may be to do with populism: populist politicians have great one-liners (like ‘Get Brexit Done’), but that stops them going further into these complicated things. There needs to be substance behind the one-liners. I have a problem with them if they obscure that there is no substance. That was the case – and I’m very clear about it – in the Brexit debate, where we haven’t begun to work out how the UK is to be successful having left Europe. It also applies to the pandemic. You can’t just say ‘we are following the science’. That’s simply a slogan.”

In their article, Nurse and Saatchi used the extended metaphor of a bad marriage to describe the relationship between the scientific community and government: “Science and politics. Not a marriage made in heaven. They both now need a marriage counsellor. Difficult marriages lead to unhappy outcomes. In this case, it may be the worst deaths in Europe and soon the worst recession ever.” He develops this idea specifically by accusing politicians of relying on the much-repeated ‘following the science’ mantra, while “they don’t actually explain what the science is. They don’t explain that science might not have all the answers. They don’t explain that there might be more than one analysis and you might need to make a choice. None of this is coming out. It’s all one-liners with probably little understanding of that science or, if there is, it’s not explained to the public.”

Nurse is quick to point out that this isn’t entirely the fault of the Conservative party. “I’ve got to say that there’s a problem with the scientists too.” He suggests that where the scientific community is at fault is in part its failure to articulate complex issues clearly, coupled with the fact that “we aren’t explaining our own ignorance sometimes”.

This is something Nurse feels scientists should own up to, because “the public will understand that... this is a new infection and we don’t understand the organism. If we’re honest about it, the public will understand that we make mistakes. If we pretend to know everything and never admit to being wrong, then that isn’t good for science. This is because science is often tentative knowledge that gets better after repeated testing. In the case of a pandemic, at the beginning all knowledge is tentative.”

Nurse’s new book ‘What is Life?’, his debut in the world of authorship for a wider public, is incontestably a work of ‘popular science’, aimed at the lay reader audience. Commenting on why he wrote the book, he says it’s a contribution to the literature of the public understanding of science. “The question itself – what is life? – is a very interesting one: you could argue it’s one of the most fundamental questions of science.”

The sepia-toned face of Paul Nurse - inline

Image credit: Nick Smith

He says it has frequently occurred to him that biologists tend not to focus on ‘the big questions’: “Physicists do that, and we see endless books about the origin of the universe and that sort of thing. Yet biologists tend to concentrate on details and particulars and write books about how things affect us... a book about coronavirus for example.” In response, Nurse says he wanted to write a book that “addresses the big questions about biology, particularly one that focuses on what life is. But not only that, I wanted to write it in a way that essentially anybody (that has the interest to do so) will be able to read and understand.” The book has come at a good time. In the grips of a global healthcare crisis, there is a newfound existential public interest in our own human biology that Nurse thinks “has not been taken seriously enough in the past, for sure”.

Nurse explains: “We have had epidemics and pandemics periodically and frequently in recorded history. We know that infectious agents – bacteria or viruses – can cause havoc in society. We have perhaps become somewhat complacent – mistakenly so – in that we can fight off bacteria with antibiotics, and with vaccines to deal with viruses, for example.” However, that complacency, Nurse contends, also extends to “new organisms – and it is certainly the case that viruses can evolve very quickly – that we may not be able to combat when they first appear”. On the other hand, we will “almost certainly” be able to address them in the future as the science community researches in more detail the characteristics of the virus. “As a consequence of that, if the virus creates serious health issues, as coronavirus does, and is also infectious, which is the case at the moment too, then we are not in a position to combat it immediately.” The outcome is that society is forced into containment mitigation that, according to Nurse, is “almost medieval”, by which he means “keeping apart from one another. When we had the plague in the Middle Ages, whole villages were isolated so the infection wouldn’t travel. With coronavirus, we essentially used the same tactic while we looked for a treatment or vaccine that could deal with it.”

As Nurse has already hinted at, one consequence of the blanket media coverage of coronavirus is that for sustained periods, it has demoted other important stories such as Brexit or the climate crisis from the top of the news cycle. “The pandemic has dominated (though one could say ‘over-​dominated’) the news. You can see why: people are dying. Not in gigantic numbers, I have to say. Yet it is killing significant numbers of those over 70 or 80. If it was killing 10 per cent of the total population, we’d be living in total fear by now. And yet, we mustn’t forget the other major issues. We are sleepwalking into huge problems with Brexit that are not being solved and which will have a significant impact on scientific research and development. Ninety per cent of scientists were hugely against Brexit and consistently so. It was probably the single sector of work activity that was most negative about Brexit.”

The scientific community is “also worried” about climate change, says Nurse, who adds that in terms of seriousness, “pandemics are in the same order as an issue such as climate change. Yet pandemics have been ignored, just as climate change was for many years.” Nurse says these issues that affect the STEM environment are affected by the media-government-science relationship, “and they are all affected by populism”. To illustrate the point, he refers to commenters saying that the impact on society of climate change was being overestimated while “having no data to support that. It’s now seen to be false: an assertion with no base for it. Of course, Brexit was driven by populism too. So, you could argue that there is a virus of populism that we need to deal with too.”

Some yeast, yesterday - inline

Image credit: Science Photo Library

Nurse has been a cell biologist and geneticist for more than half a century, whose illustrious career at the forefront reached an apex of recognition in 2001 when, along with Leland Hartwell and Tim Hunt, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries of protein molecules that control the division of cells in the cell cycle. “I work on what controls the reproduction cell, the fundamental process for the growth and development of all life. In my new book, I point out that one of the great ideas in biology is the cell.” Despite being past retirement age, “I still run a laboratory where we are doing come Covid work. I’m still an active researcher and I have five graduates working with me, and we are still looking into some of the detail about this control system for cell reproduction. It is a process that not only occurs in all life but is also the same in all organisms, except for bacteria. In fungi, plants, animals... it’s the same process. For me that’s amazing and it’s the centre of my life’s work really, although I had no idea when I started working on it 50 years ago that this would be the case. Yet it is the case and I’m still really fascinated by how that works and the details of it.”

Nurse’s research famously concentrates on cellular science in yeast: “But most of what we’ve discovered in yeast applies to every organism, including ourselves. I’m interested in how all that works. How do you bring about the temporal order of events from the start of a cell, when it is born, to when it divides? This is a successful developmental programme that allows it to divide and bring about the reproduction of itself. It’s all based on the control system I’ve been working on and I’m still working on today.”

When we do find out a more detailed picture of how these basic units of life – cells – work, Nurse says the first implication will be “a contribution to culture and civilisation. The fact that we will come to understand this system that’s been around for 1,500 million years has a cultural effect. It’s like asking what are the implications of the Big Bang Theory which provide a crucial part of our cultural environment, of our own understanding of the natural world around us and understanding our place within it. We forget that science helps us to understand the world we live in.”

The second implication, which Nurse describes as the “utilitarian aspect, its use... is that if we know how cells reproduce themselves and the central role that plays in every living thing, it means that we’ll understand cell development better and we’ll begin to be able to manipulate circumstances better”. He goes on to say we already do this to a certain extent in modifying plants for agriculture, “but the critical one is cancer. The truth is that every cancerous cell must activate this control system to bring about reproduction. Knowing how this is regulated in a different uncontrolled way in cancer cells versus normal cells introduces the notion of different ways of treating cancer.”

Will it be biology’s Apollo 11 moment? “A global understanding of cells? It is absolutely an Apollo 11 moment. Don’t get me wrong, Apollo 11 had some very good engineering, but the science was relatively straightforward. Understanding how cells work is much more complicated than a bit of Newtonian physics sending rockets into space.”

‘What is Life? Understand Biology in Five Steps’ by Paul Nurse is published by David Fickling Books, £9.99


Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles