Getting to the Francis Crick Institute, opposite St Pancras station in central London, is still a little eerie. The crowds that once milled about outside the Eurostar terminal are not there. The usual King’s Cross hubbub remains absent. But inside the Crick, a £700 million flagship of British scientific endeavour, the atmosphere is rather different.
The flagship is no ghost ship. Rather, researchers and lab workers pursuing the genetic fundamentals of life and death, ageing, immunity and disease – above all, cancer – lock up their bikes and throng the astonishing glass, concrete and steel edifice they call their office: a seven-storey secular cathedral complete with vast tinted panes that bathe its atrium in stained-glass hues.
“We are at maximum capacity,” says Sir Paul Nurse, one of the nation’s most eminent scientists: Nobel Prize winner, former President of the Royal Society, owner of more honorary doctorates and degrees than most people can count, and now the Crick’s director. Some administrative staff are working from home, but the scientists, all 1,200 or so of them, are back. How could they not be? They need their equipment and their labs. I peer in through one door: on cue a white-coated figure squirts something into a dish with a giant pipette.
“Being a scientist is a mixture of being an artisan and a thinker,” says Sir Paul. And his world-beating artisans need their tools. To ensure they got it, as the pandemic froze the rest of society, the institute created a test-and-trace mechanism all of its own, a screening system that the Premier League would be proud of, to secure business as usual.
“We allow very few visitors,” Nurse’s PA tells me as she guides me to his office. “We test everybody every week,” he adds once I get there. “And in the three months we’ve been doing it, we’ve had just three infected people.” They got sent home, along with those at the Crick they came into contact with.
“Testing and tracing in a building is easy, just easy,” he insists. It is, he says with both satisfaction and impatience, a model of what could be done.
“There hasn’t been enough attention on how you defend the workplace,” he says. We have retreated too easily, he thinks, from the institutions of everyday life. “Now, I wouldn’t say that testing is cheap – but, then, it’s not been cheap sending everybody home.”
The suggestion is that if you can ring fence one workplace, renowned biomedical research centre though it may be, you can ringfence thousands and, patchwork quilt-fashion, piece together a decent fragment of normality.
But such modest, local efforts are, says Sir Paul, 71, not the style of a Government with a taste for the grand gesture. A Government which has, he says, found itself “out of its depth” since the emergence of Covid-19.
On testing, for example, he is critical of the project to create a five-strong array of mega-centres known as “lighthouse labs”, rather than turn in the early days of the pandemic to a network of smaller, decentralised testing labs.
The first lighthouse lab, at Milton Keynes, was opened on April 9, but by then the country was two weeks into lockdown and, says Nurse, it was too late to help with the first wave.
“They could have had a 100,000 [daily] testing capacity [much sooner], which would have helped with the last peak,” he insists. “But they had got completely committed to the big laboratories, which could never have been put in place in time.”
He likens the situation to the evacuation of Dunkirk, which depended not just on the big naval vessels to get men and materiel off the beaches, but also a flotilla of “little ships”. The Crick itself, he says, was just one such ship standing by.
The result he fears, looking back, is that – faced with shortages of everything from tests to humble face masks – policy was bent to fit capacity. Attending one recent select committee hearing, he overheard officials suggest that, as Covid-19 began to throttle the country in late March, “they were doing all the NHS testing that was needed”. Yet, Nurse says, daily testing capacity was just 20-30,000 at the time, and the NHS has 1.1m staff, more than 400,000 doctors and nurses. Infection among those frontline health workers in some areas, the Crick’s own studies revealed, was running at 45 per cent. “They couldn’t possibly provide what was needed. They weren’t testing because they couldn’t.”
He does not suggest that this amounted to a malicious attempt to deceive. “They probably didn’t want to panic the whole country by saying we should be doing it [testing] but can’t. But they should be more sophisticated with their communications, because the public are not idiots.”
As the Government “devised rules that allowed them to operate but didn’t contain the pandemic”, he notes, one of the first casualties was trust: trust not just between electors and elected, and between politicians and scientists. “It has all unravelled.”
The battleline he is interested in redrawing now is that between politicians and the scientists who advise them. Dominic Cummings, the PM’s chief advisor famous for his championing of data-driven insights, is “obviously very interested in science - but I don’t think he knows much about how it actually works. It would be better for him and for us if he did.”
In particular, Nurse thinks, a review is needed “of how in these situations you integrate scientific advice into policy”, especially as advanced technologies become ever-more dominant and ubiquitous and the transmission of advice from specialist to politician more and more needed. On Covid, for example, the UK has a three-fold process: Sage offers advice, ministers formulate policy and public health services implement it. But who is responsible for outcomes is blurred. Nurse admits that a lot of his fellow scientists feel that they are being, and will be, made to carry the can for mistakes, and that the oft-heard phrase “we follow the science” has become a convenient way to shift blame.
The reality, of course, is that the scientific method, learning through trial and error, delivers advice that is equivocal, balance-of-probabilities stuff – unhelpful to the black-and-white formulations required of headlines and No.10 briefings.
Nurse looks up. He understands complexity; knows the realities of communicating difficult messages. A little over a decade ago this world-famous geneticist discovered that his own genes were not what he imagined them to be. A chance rejection of his US Green Card application led him, in his late 50s, to learn that the woman he had always regarded as his sister was in fact his mother. His “mother” and “father” were actually his working-class grandparents who had brought him up as their own to avoid the scandal of illegitimacy. For half a century, his family had all kept the secret from him, eventually taking it to their graves.
Now Nurse has no one to ask who his real father was. He has pursued a lead or two through genealogy sites, has fired off a couple of letters of enquiry but received no reply. He acknowledges others might prefer to let sleeping dogs lie. “You have to be sensitive.”
He can see the irony, running the Crick, yet remaining ignorant of something as fundamental as his own parentage. But that, he says, is the very essence of science.
“There is this idea that when a scientist says something, they’re almost close to God. That knowledge is chiselled in stone. But the science we do here is like walking through a fog,” he says, bubbling with enthusiasm at the notion. “We don’t know anything. We’re exploring the boundaries of knowledge. And a pandemic is a boundary of knowledge.”