“We make knowledge. That’s what I do”
Telephone interview with Sir Peter Ratcliffe following the announcement of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 7 October 2019. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.
Sir Peter Ratcliffe took a break from writing a grant proposal to take the call from Stockholm. He stresses how hard it is to know what information will be useful and the dangers of trying to direct research towards particular, predetermined goals.
Sir Peter J Ratcliffe: Hello?
Adam Smith: Hello, this is Adam Smith from Nobelprize.org.
AS: It’s very nice to hear you. Many congratulations.
PR: It’s very nice to hear you, actually, yes, in your capacity, thank you.
AS: It is a working morning for you so what were you doing when the call came?
PR: Well, very interesting question. I was writing and will continue to write an EU Synergy grant for a collaborative work with friends and colleagues in Finland, and also my good friend and colleague Christopher Schofield, so of course the EU’s on our minds at the moment, and we’re writing a Synergy grant. And despite this good news I guess I’ll continue doing that and meet the deadline.
AS: Yes, they don’t go away for anything.
AS: Talking about the EU is kind of apposite at the moment; these are fevered times in Britain.
AS: Are you … the Prize will bring some publicity and you’ll be in lots of interviews over the coming days.
AS: Will you take the opportunity to talk about the current situation, Brexit and all that sort of thing?
PR: I probably will, yes. Well, I think there is a responsibility and a platform to make one’s views known. And I do have views on this, and I think they are important for science and for society. So let’s hope this is a happy event that helps in some way.
AS: Your Prize is really an illustration, I think, of never knowing where a question will lead you. Your search for regulators of EPO, has opened up a whole new sphere of hypoxia biology. It’s so exciting.
PR: Yeah, sure. It very much was. You’re right, we set about the problem of EPO regulation, which might have seemed, and did seem to some a niche area, but I believed that it was tractable, i.e. could be solved by someone, and that’s a very important thing that the problem has a potential solution. And of course as with almost any discovery science the impact of that becomes evident later, and we didn’t really foresee the broad reach of this system when we started the work. That’s true.
AS: But it underlines the importance of having the courage to ask the questions, doesn’t it?
PR: Yes, I think the courage, and I think this is an important issue, that we make knowledge, that’s what I do as a publicly-funded scientist. That knowledge has only one quality that’s definable really: it’s good knowledge, it’s true, it’s correct. The idea at the outset that some knowledge might be more valuable than some other knowledge, well probably that’s true also, but it’s extremely difficult to assess in prospect, and this is an example where we set out on a journey without the clear understanding of the value of that knowledge, and I guess it has gained in value. Quite what the future holds of course is yet another question, but it is important that scientists have the courage and are allowed to derive knowledge for its own sake, i.e. independent of the perceived value at the point of creation. And history of science tells us over and over again that the value of that knowledge can increase with the impact on other people’s research, other circumstances, all sorts of random and unpredictable issues brought to bear.
AS: Because now, unexpectedly, the hope is that tweaking the system is going to be useful in all sorts of diseases.
PR: That’s our hope, and of course the slightly odd thing is that the leading indication is where we started, the regulation of erythropoietin to correct anaemia … now … so we’ve gone full circle: from private to EPO to a general system to trying to keep it private to EPO. And that’s the aim of drugs that are being developed to do that in an effective and safe way, and some of these trials are still to declare and that’ll be exciting news to come in the next year or so.
AS: It’s a lovely story. Good, well we look forward to continuing to watch it. You sound, as ever, wonderfully calm and collected.
PR: No, no I’m not calm! [Laughs] But carry on.
AS: Are you … are you looking forward to the storm that’s about to unleash on you?
PR: Um … I’m not a tiger for publicity. It’s a very happy event, obviously very satisfying and a reward for me. I’m happy about it. Yes, I think it’s a … and comfortable with talking to people such as yourself. Um … I’m not ecstatic about the possibility of being a public figure, if that’s what one is. I’ll do my duty I hope.
AS: We very much look forward to welcoming you to Stockholm in December.
PR: Yes indeed, no I look forward to that too.
AS: Thank you.
PR: Thank you very much and good to talk.
AS: Thank you, congratulations again. Bye.
PR: Bye bye.
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Their work and discoveries range from how cells adapt to changes in levels of oxygen to our ability to fight global poverty.
See them all presented here.