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Britain's New Political Scientist; A Q&A With Julian Huppert

19 May 2010 12:32 pm
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Julian Huppert

Julian Huppert has mixed politics and science since graduating from the University of Cambridge in 2000. On the research side, he stayed at Cambridge to get a biochemistry Ph.D. and now leads a small group there studying unusual four-stranded knots of DNA known as quadruplexes that seem to govern gene activity and could be the target of anticancer drugs. Huppert has also been a Cambridge-area politician for years and in the 6 May general election he won the city's parliamentary seat as a Liberal Democrat. Huppert spoke with ScienceInsider about his new career plans the day before his party, which won the third-most member of parliament (MP) seats, made a deal to form a ruling coalition with the Conservative Party, which won the most seats.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Do you plan to give up research or try to find time for it?

J.H.: Being a research scientist and a member of parliament are both full-time jobs. I will have to leave the lab. It was a tough decision. ... The general perception is that I can probably do more for the research community by being a voice who can speak up for it.

Q: There's been a big loss of science advocates in the Parliament. Does that make your task more important?

J.H.: Absolutely. There's been a lot of people standing down and then also people who lost their seats. My colleague Evan Harris is a real loss. [Harris was the Liberal Democrat science spokesperson.] So, yes, it's a real concern, the shortage of people who understand science, even in the broader senses.

Q: At the moment, what is the biggest problem facing British science?

J.H.: There are a number of problems with British science. Part of it is the increasing amount of central control, increasing bureaucracy with things like impact assessments, and the lack of freedom to do creative science.

Q: British scientists often say they have a lot of trouble commercializing their work because of a lack of venture capital. You've founded a company [which has since closed]. Is it a problem?

J.H: When I talk to high-tech in Cambridge, they say they mostly [get] smaller-scale feeder money to get ideas tested. That's also become harder to get recently. In America, there's more acceptance that some ideas don't work. I think we need to have a more creative culture in Britain and be more prepared to accept the risk that something doesn't work.

Q: If you had to pick between winning a Nobel Prize or being prime minister, what's your greater ambition?

J.H: [laughs] I'm not sure if either of those is likely to happen.

Q: On a more practical level then, what's tougher, science or politics?

J.H.: They're both tough in different ways, and they're both unpredictable in different ways. Certainly politics is more sociable—it allows you to think more about the whole range of different issues, while science often tends to be very narrow.

Q: Should all political decisions be evidence-based, or should politicians be at liberty to make decisions outside of the scientific evidence?

J.H.: Both. I think there's a big difference between being informed by the scientific evidence and the final decision that's made. What I'm calling for is scientifically informed, evidence-based policy. So, it's not a simple case. You don't say if a drug kills more than this many people a year, it's unsafe. There are lots of other factors, there are lots of value judgments. What I want is politicians to be aware of evidence and know how to interpret the evidence and then make their political judgments and value decisions based on that evidence.

Q: Do you hope to be on any of the parliamentary committees, particularly the science committee?

J.H: I've had some conversations about that. On the other hand, I don't want to be pigeonholed as a scientist. I'm also on the National Council of Liberty. That looks at civil liberties issues, justice issues, and my belief is that the evidence-based approach also applies there. For example, there was very nice research on "restorative justice" as an alternative to short-term sentencing, which shows that it's better at reducing future crime, cheaper, and preferred by victims. That evidence-based approach is very important across the board; it's not just unique to scientists. I don't want to be seen as somebody who can just talk about research and research funding.

Q: Growing up, did you want to be a scientist or a politician? Have you always been juggling the two interests?

J.H.: When I was growing up, I was always trying to do something worthwhile. I was always interested in science. Both my parents are scientists in various ways. And so I studied science. I actually initially intended to switch to law. I worked with the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] for a while, then did a Ph.D. in science. But by the time I got to my Ph.D., I was already an elected county councilor. And so I spent my whole Ph.D. and postdoc juggling these two roles. I got my first academic position and then the opportunity to become an MP came up in Cambridge, and so I switched. It's always been a challenge to find the best way of doing something worthwhile.

Q: The topic you've researched is one that, it's arguably fair to say, is somewhat obscure. But it now has some potential biomedical use. Is your own research career an example of kind of where basic research might lead?

J.H.: How obscure my research field is depends on how you look at it. DNA, as a molecule, is something that has been researched proactively for a long time. But when I started, we thought these particular structures that I work on were more likely to be rare. One of my papers now says that they may be involved in controlling almost half of all genes. It's very exciting.

Q: Do you think the recent policy document from the Labour government on how to handle scientific advice is appropriate, or does there need to be more revision to how government handles scientific advice?

J.H.: One of the key things is it failed to get the trust of the scientists, and I think that's a big problem. It's hard because sometimes scientific evidence is counterintuitive, and politicians have to be able to accept that. We also need to understand the difference between hearing advice, considering advice, and acting on exactly what it is. I'm very much pro- scientific evidence, but I don't want a sort of technocracy where scientists say, "This is the right way to do something."

Q: You've stated a position on Britain's national DNA database. Can you explain that?

J.H: I think it is entirely wrong to have a database that contains data of innocent people. That's a value that I have. There are also a number of technical concerns. For example, it's quite easy to fake a DNA sample if you have access to somebody's records on a database. There are also clear statistical differences between two different ways of using DNA data. I have no problem with the use of DNA data. But if you have a suspect and a sample from a site, and you do a match, that can give you very different statistical information from saying, "Here is a sample, test against millions of possible people and find a match." The statistics between those two are very, very different, and I don't think courts, lawyers, or the public understands the difference.

Q: What do you think is the future for British universities in terms of their tuition fees? Is it going to be more of the American-style tuition system or can that trend be stopped?

J.H.: I really hope we can change that system. I don't want to see a system where people are put off going to university because of the fees they have to pay. In America, there are very large endowments, and that's help to alleviate it. We don't have that in this country. I don't want things to go down that route. I already have a student who may well have to drop out because of the fees. I would like to see a system where education is free for the first degree—funded by general taxation. I think it's right for people who are earning more money to pay, not students.

Q: Stepping back to you leaving science, how are you going to handle this transition?

J.H.: I've been very carefully preparing for this in consultation with my head of the department. My students will be moving on to other places; the postdoc is a joint [position] with another supervisor, who will be able to take full management responsibility. Some of projects will probably continue, even though I don't.

Q: Has it been intimidating, exciting, or both, to be working on DNA structures at the Cavendish Laboratory, given the history of what it means to DNA. [Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the double helix structure of DNA while there.]

J.H.: It's a great place to be. It also shows what happens when you forget the value of interesting science. Although Lord Cavendish did fantastic work in the early stages of molecular biology, there was then a regrettable decision that this wasn't proper physics. And so, the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, for example, was not part of the Cavendish, and the physics department really moved away from this area, which was a real loss to the department. It's only quite recently, with the new Physics of Medicine Institute, that the gulf has been bridged again, allowing us to do some really good work.

Q: Can you tell me where your anticancer drug work stands—these quadruplex structures, you believe, might be targeted?

J.H.: There's research around the world to develop drugs which can selectively bind to these quadruplex structures. The problem is selectivity because you need a ligand that will bind to quadruplexes rather than [DNA] duplexes, because there's a lot more duplexes. And you also need to select for one particular quadruplex over another, and that's currently been very hard to do, although there has been very nice work towards that. We've been working on trying to get that selectivity.

Q: Do you have any regrets about leaving science? What are you going to miss most?

J.H: I'm not sure if it's quite hit yet. One of the great things is having colleagues around the world. There's really something very special about that, that collaborative approach. I'll miss that. But then, there are some very nice people to work with here in Westminster as well.

Q: In your campaign, you didn't seem to be running as a scientist; you certainly weren't hiding that aspect of your career, but it wasn't the dominant thrust. Is that a fair assessment?

J.H.: I've been 8 years as a county councilor, several years on the regional assembly, so, no, being a scientist is not the only thing about me. But it was mentioned on pretty much every single piece of literature that we put out. We had a glossy magazine that included a feature about some of my work. But I think the general public is not interested in the details of quadruplex ligands.