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Nurse takes Royal Society's pulse


President plans wider role for Britain's national academy.

Paul Nurse Credit: Anne Katrin Purkiss/Rex Features

For Paul Nurse, few things are off-limits. Since taking over as president of Britain's Royal Society in December last year, he has been overseeing a strategic review that is likely to lead to the first change to the society's charter since it was signed by King Charles II in 1662.

The change is relatively minor (it extends the terms of office for the society's council members), but it gives a good indication of how he is likely to approach his five-year tenure. "I felt we should look at everything we do, root and branch," he says over morning tea in the society's august central-London headquarters.

Nurse wants the society to have a stronger voice on the big policy questions of the day. "The Royal Society has a responsibility to provide advice on difficult issues, even if they are contentious," he says.

He hopes to boost the society's role in government decision-making by fostering greater involvement of its roughly 1,500 fellows and foreign members in preparing reports, potentially with the help of more policy staff. Nurse also wants to expand the number of authoritative and influential reports on key issues, such as nuclear power, climate change and the definition of life. The society has long produced such reports, most recently on the global scientific enterprise and on the potential threats and opportunities offered by geoengineering to mitigate climate change. But Nurse sees an opportunity to do more on a broader range of topics, with an eye for increasing the society's global reach. "I think the world would listen to us," he says.

Not everyone is convinced. "The first thing it should do is get a big bookshelf and put it in the basement to store the reports," says Daniel Greenberg, a journalist based in Washington DC who has devoted his career to studying the intersection of science and policy. The US National Academy of Sciences, which produces many more reports than its British counterpart, has relatively little influence over the political process, he says. "Nobody in politics reads an academic report, slaps the side of their head and says 'Wow!'," he says.

Others suggest that the society could gain more influence by choosing its topics carefully. National Academy reports can sometimes shift the tone of a debate, says David Goldston, who was chief of staff on the US House Committee on Science from 2001 to 2006. And Robert May, a zoologist at the University of Oxford, UK, and former president of the society, points out that a 2002 report on foot-and-mouth disease helped to set up national vaccination strategies to prevent widespread cattle culling during future outbreaks. That report was successful in part because the society consulted closely with politicians and bureaucrats throughout, says May.

Nurse insists that the society will focus on "big areas that are important to our society" — not just those immediately relevant to policy-makers. Through conferences and studies, the society should also draw attention to the biggest mysteries in science, he says. "What is life? What is the beginning of the Universe? You know, that type of question."

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Brumfiel, G. Nurse takes Royal Society's pulse. Nature 477, 258 (2011).

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