“A little bit of knowledge generates a great deal of ignorance”

Kim Nasmythed

Kim Nasmyth, 63, is a renowned researcher who co-discovered cohesin, a protein complex crucial for faithful chromosome segregation during cell division. Amongst other prizes and distinctions he is a member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO), a fellow of the Royal Society and a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS). The British scientist has been director of the Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) in Vienna for seven years and is currently the Head of the Biochemistry Department in Oxford. This chemist with a passion for climbing visited the PRBB last November.

Many of your students have become very successful scientists… what are you like as a mentor?

I have to admit I am not very sympathetic, I don’t go around holding hands with my students. But I help them think clearly, to set their sights high, expect a lot; but also to distinguish between what is achievable and what is not. I try to teach them to strive to give an explanation, not only to produce data.

What is science for you?

I believe the driving force behind science is realising there is a problem: it is what I call the “Apollo 13” symptom. On the other hand, the most dangerous thing in science is to believe you have learned everything, that you can explain it all. In science, the more you learn, the more questions appear. A little bit of knowledge generates a great deal of ignorance. And I think that is what defines real science: that each question you ask, when answered, raises all sorts of other equally, if not more, interesting questions.

You share the motto of the Royal Society: Nullius in verba, take nobody’s word for it. Do you think science can help create an evidence-based society?

I think the scientific way of doing things and a scientific mindset should play a major role in this. But at the moment I believe science is in crisis, as pointed out by a recent article in The Economist. The career we have set up for scientists is encouraging a type of researcher interested only in pleasing their peers, and not in pursuing the truth. We have lost our moral compass, because we have lost our belief in God. We can’t forget that many great scientists of our time were religious, and that helped them to keep to the truth; the fear of burning in hell if they did not do this. We have lost that fear, and now we need to recover that morality without God.

Perhaps scientists have lost their morals, but isn’t there a control system for published research?

Yes, we have control by peer-review but this is such an amorphous global concept. We’ve lost control by the closer community, the people who know you, who know how you work. This is the real way of controlling someone. You would never publish something that the people around you, those that you care about, don’t think is worth it.

How can this control system be improved?

We would need to change the reward scheme, and the whole peer review system. And we would have to be ruthless, shut down the things that don’t work.

This interview was published in the June 2013 edition of El·lipse, the monthly newspaper of the PRBB

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