Tuesday , August 16 2022

British science voice fighting for the future of UK research



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Venki Ramakrishnan responded amazingly to the two most important phone calls of his working life. In October 2009, he refused for several minutes to believe that his caller was actually the secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences informing him that he had won the Nobel chemistry prize, rather than a prankster wearing a Scandinavian accent.

Then in early 2015 Sir Venki (who was knighted in 2012) received a call from the vice president of the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of sciences, asking if he would consider becoming president – the country’s most famous scientific site .

“I thought initially he was contacting me to get suggestions from other people,” said Sir Venki. He soon realized he was being singled out for the main job but was still arguing against his own appointment, for technical and personal reasons, as the caller became increasingly irritated. “I didn’t think I was particularly suited to this job,” he said.

Eventually, Sir Venki – a molecular biologist known for his attractive modesty – came up with the idea and was appointed PRS, as the presidency is called in scientific circles, for a five-year term that expires on Monday.

The Royal Society is one of the world’s oldest and most influential scientific bodies, housed in a majestic building overlooking St James Park in central London. It is a self-governing fellowship, spending £ 130m a year on a mission dating back to its founding in the 1660s: “Recognizing, promoting and supporting excellence in science and encouraging the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity. In addition to 210 employees, the Royal Society can mobilize hundreds of volunteers among its 1,700 fellows and overseas members.

Sir Venki, 68, started in 2015 with a slate of issues he wanted to pursue as PRS: “improving international relations, engaging with the public – and I was particularly passionate about education reform”. But two unexpected developments ensued. Brexit – and how to shield research from its adverse effects – has been a “complete distraction” for more than four years. And Covid-19 has dominated this year. “I’ll be called president B to C rather than A to Z,” he jokes, “because I only succeeded from Brexit to Covid.”

Sir Venki’s background as a world scientist, rather than a member of Britain’s large and well-known scientific establishment, was one reason why he was surprised to have been tapped for the role of PRS, but he used it effectively to argue for maintaining the maximal international links for UK Science after Brexit.

“I came to Britain relatively late in life, in my late 40s,” he said. “I didn’t have a network here. I didn’t know a wide range of people. I certainly didn’t know anyone outside of science. ”

Sir Venki was brought up in southern India in a middle-class family – both parents were scientists – who moved to the United States after graduating, working at various American universities before becoming a group leader in Cambridge’s famous “Nobel Prize factory” , MRC Molecular Biology Laboratory in 1999.

One reason he accepted PRS’s position, he said, is that “it would be a good symbol for someone coming from outside Britain, late in life, to be adequately accepted to lead the British science voice. I thought that sent a good message about the openness of Britain. ”

After the result of the referendum, Sir Venki encouraged the Royal Society and other scientific organizations to bring potential damage to research from the impression that Brexit gave the UK a less welcoming and more xenophobic society. But it had to operate within the rules laid down by the Charity Commission. “While we cannot take sides in a political question, we can identify the potential consequences of something happening,” he said.

The campaign has been partially successful, Sir Venki feels, in two ways: guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens to stay in Britain; and to persuade the government to introduce a visa scheme that makes it “relatively simple” to recruit researchers not only from Europe but from anywhere in the world.

It continues to fight for its third goal – maintaining the UK’s involvement in the EU’s main research programs after Brexit – which is still up in the air. “Three weeks ago I wrote to the prime minister urging him to reach agreement on Britain’s connection with Horizon Europe, because this is so important for the future of UK science,” he said.

When reports of Covid-19 arrived in China in January and then the first UK outbreaks in February and the arrival of a full-scale epidemic in March, ministers were “deeply distracted” by Brexit and its aftermath, Sir Venki said. That added to the government’s slow response and its failure to enforce early life-saving lockouts, he added.

At the beginning of March he attended a meeting of the Science and Technology Council at 10 Downing Street “with the prime minister actually spending some time with us”, he said. “It was about these leaps to a future global Britain and becoming the superpower of science, with hardly any mention of the pandemic. . . I think Brexit and the transition could not have come at a worse time in terms of the pandemic. ”

Under Sir Venki’s leadership, the Royal Society quickly established a number of expert groups to advise on various aspects of the Covid-19 response, such as data analysis.

“For example, we weighed in on the debate on face masks at an early stage when quite respected scientists were very skeptical about the effectiveness of surface dressings,” he said. Although no rigorous clinical trial results have been shown to reduce coronary virus transmission, the Royal Society found good evidence from physical and observational studies to support advice on dressing. After appearing on radio and television to advocate wearing masks in public, “I got a lot of hate mail from crazy people who think of masks as somehow infringing on their civil liberties.”

The new PRS is distinguished statistician Adrian Smith, chief executive of the Alan Turing Institute, the national center for data science and artificial intelligence. Unlike Sir Venki five years ago, Sir Adrian is at the heart of the UK’s scientific establishment.

The selection procedure this time was less opaque and more systematic than when Sir Venki unexpectedly appeared out of the fog. “There was a shortlist, there was actually an interview process,” he said. “But the election itself is what I call an election in North Korea because the council decides on one name and the vote goes out to all the fellows with that name only.”

While presiding at the Royal Society, Sir Venki has continued to run a laboratory at the LMB, investigating the biochemical processes that convert genes into proteins. He can now devote more time to this research, when writing a second book to follow the successful Gene Machine: The Race to Interpret Ribosome Secrets, who described the work that led to his Nobel Prize.

“I enjoy engaging with the public and I enjoy writing,” he said. “The next book will be about aging and death. It’s a biologically interesting problem but I’m also motivated by the fact that anti-aging has become a multi-million dollar industry and I sense there’s something not quite right about it. “

Three questions for Venki Ramakrishnan

Lawrence Bragg, left, listening to the original Edison phonograph at the Royal Institution in London (1958) © Central Press / Hulton Archive / Getty

Who is your leadership hero?

Lawrence Bragg. Still the youngest person to win the Nobel Prize for science at the age of 25, he went on to nurture generations of brilliant scientists with his encouraging approach and empathy, and his refusal to take credit for his younger children’s work. His vision helped launch two great fields outside his own field of crystallography: molecular biology and radio astronomy.

What was the first leadership lesson you learned?

Have goals that are ambitious and not enticed by the easy but insignificant. Try to surround yourself with people at least as bright as you, give them independence and a sense of ownership of their work, and never be afraid to show ignorance or ask for help.

What would you do if you were not a scientific leader?

If I had the talent, creativity and courage, I would have liked to be a writer or musician. They put so much of themselves into their work and then risk exposing it all to the unfavorable public opinion.

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