I had the fortunate opportunity to talk with Dr. Paul Nurse, a keynote speaker on the first day of the 2012 European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) Meeting. Dr. Nurse, a Nobel laureate, has served as CEO of Cancer Research UK, President of The Rockefeller University, and now Director of the Francis Crick Institute. He has been studying what makes cells grow and divide for almost 50 years and discovered the key cyclin-dependant kinase proteins that control yeast, plant, and animal cell division.
In an open and frank discussion, Dr. Nurse expressed views on a range of subjects from science policy to the problems with translating basic research results into practical use. He had insightful comments on the differences between European and US life science research, the role of the public sector in drug development, the interplay between basic and applied research, and the need to ensure room for the creative process in managing research.
Improving European Life Science Research
Since Dr. Nurse will be assuming the role of Secretary General for EMBO next year, he started the discussion with some general observations about improving European life science. He noted that the US has traditionally spent more money funding science research than Europe. However, he suggested that a principle reason science research has been so effective in the US is that there has been a large population of good scientists which are reasonably mobile and can easily interact nationwide. He believes Europe needs to emulate this dynamic by continuing to reduce national boundaries to provide a single European-wide science community that’s open and founded on peer-review principles.
Of course this change is happening, Dr. Nurse noted, citing centralized funding from the EU capital, Brussels, in last several years that is supporting European-wide research based on rigorous peer-reviewed process. He emphasized the importance of continuing to build this program, noting, "it provides resources for younger researchers and helps overcome the older seniority-based structures still operating in some regions of Europe where one established senior professor controls the research program for the whole department or institution."
According to Dr. Nurse, with these peer-reviewed Europe-wide programs and more fluidity across borders, the best talent can come together with the right resources to do advanced research. As examples in this vein, he mentioned European initiatives focused on providing core scientific resources such as the European Molecular Biology Laboratories and the European Bioinformatics Institute.
Who Should Get the Biggest Piece of the Funding Pie?
Dr. Nurse also thought funding priorities needed to be decided smartly. He suggested that it makes sense to “throw lots of money to research areas that are open and accessible where real progress can be made.” While he felt research in an area such as neuroscience is incredibly important and needs support, “lots more money won’t crack it open.” There is still too much unknown. As another example, he brought up Nixon’s war on cancer in the early seventies. Despite immense resources, little progress was made. There just wasn’t enough known at the time to get advances regardless of the amount of money spend on it. The trick, from Dr. Nurse’s perspective, is to know when resources are limiting real progress.
Cell Research Ready for a Breakthrough
With the sequencing of the human genome and the molecular work over the last several years, Dr. Nurse points out that we now have a good description of so many of the biological aspects of cells, the simplest truly living unit of biology. However, despite this vast information base, he notes that many basic things about how the cell functions still escape us. Elementary processes such as how cells decide when to divide, what controls their rate of growth, and how do they know spatially where their middle is during division, and how cells keep track of, and ensure progeny get, a correct set of functional elements during replication cannot yet be adequately explained. He likened it to a play where we know the characters have the story description, but need to translate the script yet to really understand it.
It is this situation which he believes will enable real breakthroughs in cell biology over the next few decades. Translating the general description we have now into a full script where we understand the specific actions and interactions between the players, will require lots of time and effort though, so progress is directly dependent on the degree of resources available. In parallel with this increase in understanding the regulators and controls managing basic cell processes, however, he expects to see real progress in areas such as stem cell research and cancer.