Paul Nurse knows viscerally what it takes to build a productive scientist. Raised by his grandparents—a handyman and a cook—in class-conscious England, Nurse went on to do pioneering research in DNA and cell division, for which he won a Nobel Prize in 2001. In 2003 he was named president of the Rockefeller University in New York City, and in 2010 he became president of the British Royal Society, which makes him something of an expert in the cultural differences between European and North American scientists. He splits his time between London and New York, where he still does laboratory research. Nurse talked with Scientific American about the changing face of global science.
There is a massive collaboration going on in science. More than 35 percent of articles being published in the highest-quality journals are now internationally collaborative, up from about 25 percent 15 years ago. Collaboration is increasing and probably will increase to a very surprising level.
There are some cultural differences in the way we approach science. In the U.S., for example, there's a particular emphasis on the individual. In Europe, the focus is more on collaboration. In the Far East, there is interest in generating large quantities of data, the bedrock on which science works. This cultural mix is very enriching.
We're now seeing a gradual increase in the strength of countries and cultures that are outside what we might call the Western tradition. China's leaders have recognized that science is crucial for the nation's development and for improving the quality of people's lives. So they're making science a priority for their country and trying to make it a profession to which the very best are attracted.
Chinese science has come on fantastically in recent decades. We're seeing incredibly efficient and effective programs set up to generate large quantities of DNA-sequencing data, which are being analyzed by informatics. This is not a trivial thing to deliver in an efficient and effective way. Many who are now working in biomedicine look to China for assistance. They are doing that kind of activity extremely well. But they would probably think even themselves that they need to pay attention to the most innovative science.
India has produced very fine scientists. It hasn't yet invested quite as much as China. India has had a long tradition in certain sciences, particularly in mathematics and physics, and will become increasingly important in coming years.
Certain sciences seem to prosper well in certain cultures. Hungary is good on theory and mathematics, for example—it's difficult to quite know why. The U.K. is good at science despite the fact that we don't invest quite as much as other countries—1.8 percent [of GDP] compared with 2.9 percent for the U.S. Although we only have 1 percent of the population, we're producing 14 percent of the highest-impact papers, which is extraordinary. I do not know why British science is so effective. It may have something to do with the general culture, with maybe a mix of attention to empiricism as well as theory, a certain practicality, a liberality, an openness to ideas.
The symbolism of getting many countries working together in science is great. With big bits of kit—like big [particle] colliders [such as the Large Hadron Collider] or big telescopes—the more international we are, the better. If we can get a bigger telescope into space by working together, let's do it.
When we come to other sciences like the biological sciences, sequencing the human genome, and so on, the pieces of kit are less expensive and [costs] can be spread over more countries. But the key is to get them to talk to one another so that you're not just all doing the same work. Sequencing large amounts of data is frankly not all that interesting to do, and you don't want to be doing it if somebody else is already doing it. When there are different centers that can share data, the sums of the parts can lead to a greater whole.
Data collection will be very important in the coming years. Understanding human genetic variation by, for example, sequencing 1,000 humans with different ethnic backgrounds is a project that is international and across the board and where different centers can contribute. The use of genomics to catalogue all the life-forms on the planet is also taking off. This is simply using genome sequencing to define all the different species of animals, plants, microbes and viruses in the world. Genome sequencing gives it the precision that we need, and it has to be combined with taxonomy and the ecology. Creating an encyclopedia of life is truly collaborative.
How we can produce energy in a more sustainable, less polluting way will also cross international boundaries, both in terms of where the research is done and how we technically solve the problems, which might involve shifting energy in different ways across national boundaries.
I'm a bit distressed by it. Science thrives on a mixing of different individuals and cultures. Switzerland, which has been open to accomplished immigrants, punches way above its weight in science. Open doors in science absolutely encourage science. The U.S. has at times been very open to immigration and at other times less open to it. In the 20th century the mixture of rigor from middle European immigrants and the ability of the Americans to get things done shifted the U.S. into a prime position in science. Britain was preeminent in science when we had empire and were able to constantly reach out to different cultures.
There can be a problem when the perception from other countries emerges that a particular country isn't open. That keeps people from applying. Also, for countries such as India and China to move into the top drawer, they have to attract individuals from overseas to come work there and have to develop strong interactions with people from overseas.
Scientists speak the same language. We understand one another in different countries because we deal with things in similar ways. We take a common approach to problems. Science is a catalyst that can break down the gulf between nations.