Anarchy, freedom the key to excellence

Anarchy, freedom the key to excellence
Nobel laureates Paul Nurse (left) and Edmond Fischer with Nanyang Technological University's Professor Daniela Rhodes. The three scientists believe freedom is the key to bringing out the best in scientists - allowing them to follow their interest and let their imagination run wherever it wants.

Q: How do you get the best out of scientists?

Paul Nurse (PN): To get knowledge, you need the best people, but such people tend to be difficult to manage - it's like herding cats. If you settle for the type who just do what you tell them, then you'll end up with mediocrity. The way I try to solve this tension is to encourage the best people, give them freedom, and make it easy to capture knowledge. In the Francis Crick Institute I'm setting up in London, I want it to be anarchic and scientists will be free to form their own interest groups. We'll have a party once a month for scientists, lawyers and others in the 25 to 30 age group. You really need to encourage young people, and make it cheap and easy to exploit the science.

Edmond Fischer (EF): You never know where from or when the biggest discovery will come. That, to me, is the beauty of science. For that, you have to have the freedom to follow whatever you want. In my life, there has never been anyone telling me what I should do. People must have this freedom. They must be allowed to let their imagination run wherever it wants. A research scientist is like a painter in front of a blank canvas. Give Michelangelo a block of marble, and see what he does with it.

Daniela Rhodes (DR): It's important to provide an environment where the scientists are free to follow their interest and have the facilities to attack the problem. And once people make discoveries, there must be a mechanism in place to help develop them further, whether it's in terms of patenting or producing a drug.


Q: What are the pitfalls to steer clear of?

PN: You need to have a culture of research freedom and capturing it for the public good. You also need to have people in the government who understand science and aren't seduced by those with silver tongues. Some scientists also don't help themselves by promising too much, too soon. Also, politicians and managers tend to feel like they have to direct from the top down. But it's very important for our political masters to realise that if they want discoveries, they need to give the scientists the freedom to discover what they can.

EF: The only danger for me is that many governments do not understand the way that science proceeds. They believe that if they put $10 million into a project, they will make a big discovery. That's total nonsense.

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