Voice of British science fights for the future of British research

Venki Ramakrishnan was incredulous to the two most memorable phone calls of his working life. In October 2009, he refused for several minutes to believe that his caller was really the Secretary General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, who informed him that he had won a Nobel Prize in chemistry, rather than a joker with a Scandinavian accent.

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

“I initially thought he was contacting me for suggestions from other people,” recalls Sir Venki. He soon realized he was being polled for the top job, but still resisted his own appointment, for technical and personal reasons, as the caller became increasingly annoyed. “I didn’t think I was particularly suited for this job,” he says.

Eventually Sir Venki – a molecular biologist known for his endearing modesty – got the idea and was appointed PRS, as the presidency is known in scientific circles, for a five-year term ending Monday.

The Royal Society is one of the world’s oldest and most influential scientific institutions, housed in a grand building overlooking St James’s Park in central London. It is a self-governing fellowship, spending £ 130 million a year on a mission dating back to its founding in the 1660s: “ To recognize, promote and support excellence in science and encourage 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 foreign members.

Sir Venki, who is 68, started in 2015 with a series of issues he wanted to pursue as a PRS: “improving international relations, public engagement – and I was especially passionate about education reform”. But two unexpected developments got in the way. Brexit – and how research can be protected from its adverse effects – has been a “total distraction” for over four years. And Covid-19 dominated this year. “I’ll be called the president from B to C instead of A to Z,” he jokes, “because I could only get from Brexit to Covid.”

Sir Venki’s background as a scientist of the world, rather than as a member of Britain’s great and good scientific establishment, was one of the reasons he was surprised to be approached for the PRS role, but he used it effectively to advocate for maximum international contacts for British science after Brexit.

“I came to Britain relatively late in my late 40’s,” he says. ‘I had no network here. I didn’t know many people. I certainly didn’t know anyone outside of science. “

Sir Venki grew up in South India in a middle class family – both parents were scientists – and after graduation moved to the US where he worked at several American universities before becoming group leader at Cambridge’s famous ‘Nobel Prize factory’, the MRC Laboratory of Molecular biology in 1999.

One of the reasons he accepted the PRS position, he says, is that “it would be a good symbol for someone coming late in life from outside of Britain to be accepted enough to become the voice of British science. lead. I thought that was a good message about Britain’s openness. “

Following the referendum outcome, Sir Venki mobilized the Royal Society and other scientific organizations to fend off potential damage to research over the impression Brexit gave the UK to become a less hospitable and more xenophobic society. But he had to operate within the rules of the Charity Commission. “While we cannot take sides on a political issue, we can indicate the possible consequences if something happens,” he said.

The campaign has been partially successful, Sir Venki believes, in two respects: guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens to remain in Britain; and convincing the government to implement a visa regime that makes it “relatively easy” to recruit researchers, not only from Europe but from all over the world.

He continues to fight for his third goal – to maintain the UK’s involvement in key EU research programs post-Brexit – which is still in the air. “Three weeks ago I wrote to the Prime Minister urging him to reach an agreement on the UK’s association with Horizon Europe, because it is so important to the future of British science,” he says.

When reports of Covid-19 came from China in January, followed by the first British cases in February and the outbreak of a large-scale epidemic in March, ministers were “greatly distracted” by Brexit and its aftermath, Sir Venki said. That contributed to the government’s slow response and the absence of a life-saving early lockdown, he adds.

In early March, he attended a meeting of the Science and Technology Council at 10 Downing Street “where the Prime Minister actually spent some time with us,” he says. “It was all about these moonshots for the future global Britain and becoming a scientific superpower, and there was hardly any talk of the pandemic. . . I think Brexit and transition could not have come at a worse time in terms of the pandemic. “

Led by Sir Venki, 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 face mask debate early on, when fairly reputable scientists were very skeptical about the efficacy of face covers,” he says. While there were no rigorous clinical trial results to show that they reduced coronavirus transmission, the Royal Society found good evidence from physical and observational studies to support the advice to wear them. After appearing on radio and television to advocate for the wearing of masks in public, “I got a lot of hate mail from crazy people who somehow see masks as an encroachment on their civil liberties.”

The new PRS is leading statistician Adrian Smith, who is CEO of the Alan Turing Institute, the national center for data science and artificial intelligence. Unlike Sir Venki five years ago, Sir Adrian is someone at the heart of the British scientific establishment.

The selection procedure this time was less opaque and more systematic than when Sir Venki unexpectedly emerged from the fog. “There was a shortlist, there was actually an interview process,” he says. “But the actual election itself is what I call a North Korean election because the council decides on one name and the vote goes to all members with only that name on it.”

While chairing the Royal Society, Sir Venki continued to run a laboratory at the LMB, investigating the biochemical processes that translate genes into proteins. He can now devote more time to this research while writing a second book to follow up on the success Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome, who described the work that led to his Nobel Prize.

“I enjoy public engagement and I love to write,” he says. “The next book is about aging and death. It’s an interesting biological problem, but I’m also motivated by the fact that anti-aging has become a multi-billion dollar industry and I feel that something isn’t quite right. “

Three questions for Venki Ramakrishnan

Lawrence Bragg, left, listening to an original Edison gramophone 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 a scientific Nobel Prize at age 25, he went on to nurture generations of great scientists with his encouraging and empathetic demeanor, and his refusal to take credit for the work of his juniors. His vision helped launch two fantastic fields outside of his own field of crystallography: molecular biology and radio astronomy.

What was the first leadership lesson you learned?

Set goals that are ambitious and don’t be tempted by what is easy but trivial. Try to surround yourself with people who are at least as smart 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, the creativity and the courage, I would have liked to be a writer or a musician. They put so much of themselves into their work and then risk exposing it all to the ruthless judgment of the public.

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