"You have to be humble in knowing the limitations of what you’re doing" - Sir Paul Nurse
If you wanted to build a house, would you entrust the whole job to a plumber? Clearly not – you’d want to assemble a broad group of skilled construction workers who possess all the talents needed to create your dream home.
But what about if you wanted to cure cancer? Surely you’d use the same approach, to cover every aspect of the problem? Not up to now.
In the past half century, the fight against cancer has been mainly the domain of a single branch of science – the biologists and other ‘life’ scientists. This is partly because there was so much to be learnt about cancer’s underlying mechanism – to continue the plumbing analogy, it was as if we had to figure out what all the different sorts of pipes were for, before being able to start work on our new house.
But things are changing. To build the environment in which to cure more cancers, society needs an approach that takes in a wide range of specialisms – or, to use the current buzzword, a ‘multidisciplinary’ approach.
In other words, cancer research needs to include not just life scientists, but physicists, mathematicians, chemists and engineers.
So, to that end, scientists and funding bodies, including Cancer Research UK, are starting to change their whole approach: from deciding what disciplines will be funded, to how the science is organised on the ground.
A historical discipline
Being ‘multidisciplinary’ is not a new idea: in fact, it’s our modern concept of segregating science into separate subjects – physics, chemistry, biology etc – that’s the new kid on the block.
If we look back at the mid-1600s, the natural philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment would be astonished to see how science is organised these days.
Take Robert Hooke, one of the founder members of the Royal Society in 1660: Hooke helped Robert Boyle build the vacuum pumps used to demonstrate Boyle’s Law; found time to get his own name on another law of mechanics; showed the difference between arterial and venous blood; built telescopes and did a spot of astronomy, and coined the term ‘cell’ as the smallest functional ‘piece’ in the patchwork of living organisms.
And he did all this while overseeing the rebuilding of London after the 1666 Great Fire.
Sir Paul Nurse, the President of the Royal Society (and Nobel-winning former Cancer Research UK chief executive), is no less busy than Hooke was. But in his capacity as Director of the Francis Crick Institute – which opens its doors next month – he’s spearheading one of the UK’s most exciting ventures into modern multidisciplinary science.
These days, however, it’s a little harder to flit between subjects than it was in the 17th century, as Paul readily admits.
“Finding people who genuinely can work in several areas at once is a bit tricky: it’s really difficult to be a polymath,” he told us.
Paul’s remedy is eminently sensible: rather than expecting people to learn everything, just equip them with the vocabulary and understanding to communicate with others.
“Why not just try to put people together who can bring different skill sets to the problem?” he says. “If they have the time and willingness to engage, it’ll work”.
And he has some very good advice to would-be collaborators: “I know just enough to know that you have to be humble in knowing the limitations of what you’re doing. And building bridges between disciplines takes time, as you have to establish trust; you need to work at it, and be patient.”
According to Paul, the rewards could be immense. “Interesting things happen in the boundaries between subject areas, because there’s often space there,” he says.
“When you’re working dead centre in an area, everybody tends to end up doing the same sorts of things. But if you’re in an interface, often there’s stimulation between people who think about problems in different sorts of ways”.
Sometimes, cross-disciplinary collaborations can also be a useful reality check. Biologists may too often approach things based on the characteristics they see rather than what they can measure. And similarly, he says, “physicists can have ideas that don’t really translate into biology; for example, that the simpler the model, the more likely it is to be right.
“In biology, that isn’t true at all. We have these messy muddled systems with redundancies and goodness knows what else.”
‘Departments breed barriers’
So how does he see the Francis Crick Institute contributing to the multidisciplinary world that will help to cure cancer?
Firstly, he is very clear that discovery research should not be subdivided by disease type, and that Cancer Research UK’s £100 million investment in the Crick will be amply rewarded.
“If you’re trying to discover things that are relevant to understanding cancer, they won’t necessarily be the things you think might matter in the first place,” he says. “People working on heart disease might produce something relevant to cancer, and vice versa”.
With everyone working under one roof, the idea is that such discoveries will easily jump across labs.
Paul and the team responsible for designing the Crick have thought a lot about how to get these different teams mingling as easily as possible.
The university partners will be one key to this, as they open the door to a wealth of possible collaborators. Paul is setting up ‘satellite’ labs, where university scientists come and work temporarily in the Crick, and Crick people spend some time in their external collaborators’ labs; this would also extend to industry partners, to make it easier to recognise and develop discoveries that are particularly relevant to future treatments.
But for Paul, the task of getting the Crick’s scientists to connect is also a sociological one, and he’s thought about how to solve it on many levels – from how to persuade people to come out of their labs into the interaction spaces on each floor (“if you want to go and have a pee, or go to the lift, or get coffee, you have to go through them”), to the design of the furniture in the interaction spaces (simple tables and chairs, much to the architects’ disgust), to the flat management structure of the Institute.
This last is a particular point of passion for him: “There will be no academic departments or divisions putting up barriers between researchers. Having the unit of activity as the group is a much better way. Individual research group leaders will be empowered to develop their own creativity and to tackle big problems.”
Of course, collaboration requires funding, and Paul strongly approves of Cancer Research UK’s recent introduction of dedicated multidisciplinary funding awards, which we launched back in August last year to stimulate research in this area: “Scientists will follow where the money comes from!” he says.
The unprecedented level of applications for our new awards suggests that many in the UK research community agree with him.