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Hacks and Headlines: a press conference with Sir Paul Nurse

By Rupert P Cole, on 5 September 2012

This, being my first press conference, was a slightly strange, exciting and revealing experience. Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society and Director of the Francis Crick Institute, was here to take questions on a hotly-anticipated forthcoming Nature paper.

The paper is a genome-wide association study (GWAS) and there is word that this may be the next big thing in genetics research. Paul  gave us a brief back-story.

Ten or fifteen years ago, it was thought only about 1-2% of the human genome was biologically functional, the rest considered to be “junk DNA” with no known function. Recently, however, a lot of evidence has been gathered to suggest that the remaining 98% is doing a lot more.

Sir Paul was predictably asked whether this new research will be a major “breakthrough” in medical genetics. Coolly dismissing the media’s obsession with breakthroughs, he replied that he preferred to describe it as “just another brick in the wall” –  he must be a Pink Floyd fan.

After a few more questions, he was then hit with a challenge: “What are your views on Jeremy Hunt, just appointed Health Secretary, and known to be a supporter of homeopathy?”

This was a tricky question for any scientist keen on evidence, who, as the Royal Society’s President, also plays a key advisory role in government science policy.

Paul met the bait with expert diplomacy, commenting, while smiling wryly, that it will be “interesting” for the NHS. He added, “It could be that in his new position he will read more thoroughly and pay closer attention to the evidence base, and it could be he will change his mind”.

The NHS does still fund homeopathy. Although the amounts spent on it are small, as Paul pointed out: “It’s the symbolic significance of it. If we are to make the case for evidence-based medicine then there shouldn’t be any homeopathy.”

I took this opportunity to ask another question off topic. As I announced my intention, Sir Paul braced himself. I asked him what he thought of the open access debate.

“In Plato’s cave,” he responded, “open access is a jolly good thing. But we do not live in Plato’s cave.”  In principle, he has no objections. But the main issue is that “somebody’s got to pay for it”. It’s all very well for the likes of MacMillan, but many academic societies rely on the income generated from their journals.

Sir Paul also wondered whether anyone outside the scientific community would actually read scientific papers. He joked, I know you lot probably don’t read outside of Nature and the New Scientist.

The conference briefly silent – presumably a rare occurrence in a room of journalists – Sir Paul then mocked, “anything else you want my personal views on, while I’m here? Perhaps the cabinet reshuffle?”

Back in the press room, the journalists were frustrated they didn’t manage to get any “good” (incriminating) quotes, though admiring of Sir Paul’s witty demeanour.

It surprised me how true the clichés are about headline hunting and controversy inciting. Hats off to those who know how to handle the hacks.

Rupert Cole is a History of Science, Technology and Medicine MSc student in UCL Science and Technology Studies.

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