Following in the footsteps of eminent scientific figures like Isaac Newton and Ernest Rutherford is no easy feat, yet two months into his five-year presidency at the Royal Society, Sir Venki Ramakrishnan is taking it all in his stride.
Smartly dressed and softly spoken, the Nobel laureate and deputy director of the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology (LMB) is a calm figure of authority, very much at ease with his new role at the world's oldest and most illustrious scientific body. Indian-born Ramakrishnan, 63, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009, alongside Tom Steitz and Ada Yonath, is the 62nd president in the society's 355-year history.
He talks to Alex Jackson about his aspirations, the importance of public engagement, and the need for transparency in government policy.
"I think scientists partly have a duty, especially ones who are publicly funded, to engage with the public."
Image courtesy: Royal Society
What are some of your earliest memories of science?
I grew up in a scientific family. Both my parents were scientists, my father, a biochemist, and my mother, a psychologist. Together, they combined their skills to look at the effects of malnutrition on learning and brain development.
I originally didn't want to be a scientist, thinking I might be an engineer or doctor. I was fortunate to have a few key teachers at the right time in my life, both at high school in Vadodara (previously known as Baroda), the town I grew up in back in India, and at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, where I completed a degree in physics.
I started off as a physicist, finishing off a PhD in theoretical physics at Ohio University in the US. By the mid-1970s, I had already felt that biology was at a very exciting stage where dramatic discoveries were constantly being made, so I made the transition.
How much importance do you place on public engagement and the communication of science to a lay audience?
Public engagement means engaging the general population with science, not just its practical benefits, but science as part of our culture, and human endeavour. That in turn, builds up support for science. There is a great desire among the public to know what's going on in the scientific community. I like to say we all start off as scientists. When we are children we are always curious about all kinds of natural phenomena, why is it like this, or how does this work? We lose this as we become adults and stop asking questions. I think we should be encouraged to continue to be scientists all our lives, in some sense, and continue to ask questions.
It's also important because the public is supporting a lot of science, through paying their taxes, and it is only right that they know what it is they are supporting. I think scientists partly have a duty, especially ones who are publicly funded, to engage with the public.
Governments and politicians don't act in a vacuum, so we need to provide them with ammunition to support science. Speaking with the government without engaging the public isn't useful in my opinion. We live in a democracy and all know people have to make decisions on where to spend money. It's therefore important that we make the case for science.
"When we are children we are always curious about all kinds of natural phenomena, why is it like this, or how does this work? We lose this as we become adults and stop asking questions. I think we should be encouraged to continue to be scientists all our lives, in some sense, and continue to ask questions."
Does this engagement with government have an impact on evidence-based policies?
Absolutely. One of the strengths of the British government is that it does believe in evidence-based policy, unlike many other countries. It is very important that we provide evidence for all kinds of issues. Public issues such as GMOs, the effects of certain chemicals, issues around the development of pharmaceuticals, and global energy problems, need scientific input.
What I've seen of the government in my time here suggests it is largely evidence-based. Of course, sometimes the evidence will suggest a certain course of action that is either politically not palatable, goes against tradition, or there are cultural reasons not to do it. Where this is the case, the government need to be very transparent about why it is they are taking a certain course of action when the evidence suggests they ought to be doing something else.
"Take a guy like Michael Faraday, who never finished high school, became apprentice to Humphry Davy, and eventually rose, to the top of UK science. It shows Britain has always been meritocratic in that way about science."
Was the Royal Society appointment a surprise?
I would say it was a bit of a surprise. I've only been in Britain for about 16 years and was sort of parachuted into the laboratory for molecular biology, so I don't have the extensive network of contacts I would have had if I'd grown up and went to university here. To some extent it reflects the openness of British science. Take a guy like Michael Faraday, who never finished high school, became apprentice to Humphry Davy, and eventually rose, to the top of UK science. It shows Britain has always been meritocratic in that way about science. The other reason for my selection could be because of my international background. I grew up in India, but spent most of my life in the US, before I came to Cambridge. So in that sense I have some geographical breadth and also broad experiences in various sciences as a physicist and structural biologist.
Image: Sir Venki at the 2009 Nobel Prize press conference - © Prolineserver 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0
"We need to constantly engage with governments and industry to make sure the notion that science is going to be of long-term benefit to society is not forgotten. Without a knowledge-based society, we are not going to be able to compete in the future."
How important do you think the interdisciplinary approach to science is?
I think it can be important but shouldn't be forced. There are plenty of people doing really excellent science in their own area; pure mathematicians are doing wonderful work, as are chemists and geneticists. But often new fields will advance when different disciplines come together.
The growth of molecular biology itself came about when physicists like Max Perutz and Francis Crick became interested with chemists like Frederick Sanger, which created a kind of synthesis and new way of looking at genetics in a molecular way. My view is that one should try to remove obstacles to interdisciplinary research and perhaps to some extent foster them, but not force them.
What are you most excited about in your new role at the Royal Society?
I think science education both at school and university level is really something we need to look very hard at. We need to make sure that science is taught in an exciting and interesting way, that we're not turning off pupils at school. As well as this, we must ensure the curriculum is taught in a rigorous enough way to prepare the students for the science of the future.
Another issue is international relations, as science becomes an increasingly global enterprise. The Royal Society represents the commonwealth, and I'd like to strengthen those relationships. Many Asian countries, such as China, Korea and Singapore are also investing heavily in science and dramatically advancing. I think it's essential we engage with these countries on matters of mutual interest. If we don't, then the global agenda will be set by others.
"My view is that one should try to remove obstacles to interdisciplinary research and perhaps to some extent foster them, but not force them."
What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for UK science in 2016?
We need to constantly engage with governments and industry to make sure the notion that science is going to be of long-term benefit to society is not forgotten. Without a knowledge-based society, we are not going to be able to compete in the future. You can look at countries that are resource rich and knowledge poor, and you will find that they are not doing very well, even though they have lots of resources. It is the opposite for countries that are knowledge rich and resource poor. It is very clear that if you have a knowledge-based economy it will have an impact on economic and general well-being, and so I think that's something we certainly need to foster.