Giving scientists time to “play around” and do experiments that may not seem immediately financially profitable is essential to great science, believes Nobel laureate Timothy Hunt.
The 71-year-old was in Singapore last month for the Global Young Scientists Summit (GYSS), and had pointed to his own experience in a talk titled “How to Win a Nobel Prize”, given as part of the SingHealth Research Open House, a GYSS partner event.
He was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with two other scientists, for their seminal work in discovering how cells grow, divide and multiply.
The research goes to the heart of understanding the chaotic, lethal growth of cancer.
Sir Timothy – he was knighted in Britain, his homeland, in 2006 – had discovered proteins crucial to the cell cycle process when he was studying protein synthesis in sea urchin eggs.
He told The Sunday Times that “the really important advances always come through unexpected discoveries”.
That is why Singapore, with its prosperity and wealth, should allow its scientists the luxury of such “play”, he said.
Asked about the pressure that some scientists may feel to produce profitable research in return for funding, he said: “In places where people feel they have to be super efficient scientifically... they always put scientists onto practical problems.
“But the results are not very impressive, because the scientists are always working within an existing framework and they make tiny improvements.
“Real advances depend on discoveries, and discoveries by definition are things you didn’t know existed... You won’t know what’s out there unless you let people be extremely creative and playful.”
The same spirit of play is also essential in sparking an interest in science in young people, he said.
He noted that his own two daughters had no interest in becoming scientists, and he realised why when he read their school books.
“What was supposed to be an understanding of the world had turned into a simple act of rote memorisation. It was useless, boring and pointless.”
He added that he had observed another class where young children learnt about science through handling “creepy crawlies and spiders”, and by conducting experiments like putting inflated balloons into liquid nitrogen.
“They were having a great time, but the teachers didn’t exploit the balloon experiment in terms of analysing it in a scientific way, so it didn’t lead to a proper understanding on the kids’ part about what was going on,” he said.
The experiences led him to conclude that when it came to teaching science, especially to young people, “you need the fun aspects, you need the smells and explosions, but you also need to channel that into a more formal understanding and scientific analysis”.
Sir Timothy was a principal scientist of the Cancer Research UK charity, formerly known as the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, from 1990 until his retirement in 2010.
He said he still keeps an eye on his research field, and is on the scientific council of the European Research Council. He added that he was happy to speak at the GYSS because he believes in inspiring young people.
“There was a good reason for retiring, and that was to make space for the youngsters,” he said with a laugh.
“They have much more energy and fresh ideas.”