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In the public limelight

 

Lord Robert May has had a distinguished career that has spanned continents and research disciplines. From 1995-2000, he served as Chief Scientific Advisor to the United Kingdom Government followed by five years as President of the Royal Society. He talked to Barry Whyte about his career and achievements at the 50th Anniversary EMBO Members’ Meeting held in October last year.

 

I read that throughout your career you have liked to get in early to tackle problems. You prefer to get in quickly to a new area as opposed to looking at more established ideas?

In some ways, when people ask me about my career, I have to say I have a short attention span –that is why I keep hopping around. The truth is that I like the early stages of problems, when the area is not too crowded and there are interesting problems that have never attracted as much attention as I think they should have. When I do get into something new it has been my habit not to read too much about it – just to read a little bit and get a grasp of what is the problem. Then I think about how I would go about understanding it better. I try to learn about “the what” questions but I do not spend much effort on what are the “tentative why” questions, which are by and large lacking. I think if you read too much about what the current state of progress is on both “the what” and “the why” it will tend to channel your thinking.

 

There is a statistic out there that 80-90% of all scientists who have ever been alive are alive today. We live in a very different environment and there is a lot of pressure on younger scientists. Is it really more difficult today to be a scientist?

I think so. I would be surprised if it wasn’t. My reply is purely a conjectural one because I am not as familiar with the facts of younger careers as I might be but it many ways it is just one aspect of a much wider problem. It is not just that there are more people wanting jobs in science but partly, not entirely, it is that there are more people. There are more young people than there ever have been and so it would be interesting whether the increase in numbers of people wanting to go into science is simply proportional to the extra increase in young people. I think it is a bit more than that but it is largely driven by the fact that there are more people and that is part of a much larger question.

 

How did you make the leap into public affairs?

Well [my wife and I] had been at Princeton University for about 16 years or so. I had been one of the senior administrators. Princeton had a President and a Vice President and then four major Deans, one for the faculty, one for the undergraduates, one for graduate students and one for research. The [post] for research was a legacy of World War II when they appreciated there was going to be much more government support for research at universities. Princeton is most unusual in having rules that say yes we want people to be doing good research but we want it to be basic research. It may not actually involve developing a product that is very much against the temper of some of the times today. That’s the sort of place it was and I think it probably still is.

 

You were approached to be Chief Scientific Advisor of the United Kingdom?

The history of  this particular job is an interesting one. Let me begin with that. There was in the labour party in Britain in the 1990s a very interesting figure behind the scenes called Jeremy Bray. He was a very original thinker and not interested in political advancement. He convinced Neil Kinnock about the importance of this post. The position of Chief Scientific Advisor had been hugely important in World War II and in the subsequent years it went down and down. In the 1970s, it was half a day a week when the person who held the job met not with the Prime Minister but with his top policy group. Mrs Thatcher began to bring it back up again. She created the advisory committee on science and technology. She had a very good person as her advisor but Jeremy Bray went beyond this. He suggested in the early 1980s to Neil Kinnock, who was expected to win the next election for the Labour Party, that one of the manifesto commitments would be to create a formal office of science and technology. Bring in someone from outside, appoint them at the top level in the civil service: Grade 1 permanent secretary level so they would have real clout in the hierarchical civil service and give them an appropriate staff, about 130 people to do the things they wanted to do. When they lost the election, a Tory peer, William Waldegrave, who was a very good friend of science, convinced the winner, John Major as Prime Minister, to implement the Labour Party manifesto.

 

And you were thrown immediately into several crises?

I enjoyed it very much. There were some quite interesting excitements on my watches. There have been on later ones. One of them motivated me to do what I think was the most important thing I did in the five years that the appointment was for – which was to actually issue protocols for science advice in policy making. One has to understand that the Chief Scientific Advisor’s job is essentially to tell you what the facts are that constrain the political process of deciding what to do. But ultimately the Science Advisor can’t tell you simply what you should do. They can only set out what are the facts, which point maybe to a particular action. You are painting the backdrop for, as it were, a drama in which the play will then be acted out as a democratic process in parliament.

 

Isn’t it true that science works on the basis of skepticism and questioning and that this is sometimes very difficult to convey to a wide audience?

Absolutely. Sometimes people want to hear the answer that they would like to hear and it is not welcoming that they are to be told that it is not the right answer. It is not the job of the Chief Scientist to say its not the right answer, here is the right answer, this is what you must do. Point out that you think it may not be the best but you have got to respect the democratic process.

 

What do you think about scientific organizations that focus on excellence as a criterion for inclusion?

I think focusing on excellence should always be a criterion for putting things together but it is easier said than done. First of all, the really excellent people are probably busy doing other things but basically I think you have to have a very rigorous and accurate definition of what excellence is so you go about recognizing it. I know a lot of places that are under the delusion that they have constructed themselves by recognizing excellence but what they have done is put themselves together by recognizing great skills in advertising yourself. This is not a bad thing but is not quite the same as excellence.

 

In 2014, EMBO enlarged its communities of ecology, neuroscience and evolution. What future directions might this take the organization.

I wouldn’t be so bold as to venture looking into the far future. It seems to me certainly a good idea. Molecular biology is doing great things but from my perspective it does tend to be a little focused on accumulating experimental evidence, which is hugely important. I have always thought that when it finally begins to mature it is going to go a bit wider and it is going to ask larger questions beyond what is there. You want to go somehow right back to seeing how did it get to be like that and why did it get to be like that. So I think it can only be for the good of everybody that the knowledge base and the enquiry base – in the interests simply of pure molecular biology – broaden out to ask questions about evolution and ask questions about the ecological environment in which simple things happen.