October 2010: Update on progress

Dr Nick Lane (UCL Department of Genetics, Evolution & Environment) reflects one year after being awarded the inaugural UCL Provost’s Venture Fellowship:

The Provost’s Venture Research Fellowship has enabled me to think, and has given me the space and time – and, critically importantly, the funding – to do so rigorously and without constraint. I have the freedom to consider diverse research fields, to synthesize, and to formulate hypotheses and predictions to test them, both alone and in collaboration with others. In an ideal world, such pursuits should be open to all academics and researchers, but in practice successful funding applications tend to require conforming to accepted (and usually conservative) research norms. It is the difference between a duck with clipped wings, and a duck that can fly, with an ability to view the landscape with some perspective.

I am convinced that the ideas I am developing are important in their own right (for example, being published as a hypothesis paper in Nature), but also have the potential to alter the way that we think about more practical matters such as ageing and fertility.

It is critical to have the time and space to think these ideas through without any demand for immediate returns, or for that matter any preconceived idea about which practical areas should be targeted up front. That should emerge of its own accord from a deeper understanding.

From my own perspective, the major point is that the deep function of complex (eukaryotic) cells is not understood coherently (in fact it is astonishingly, and wonderfully, incoherent – wonderfully because it affords the opportunity to wrestle with an amazing problem and maybe resolve it, perhaps in an unexpected way). Any coherent grasp is important in its own right, but is also the bedrock for any future practical returns (which may not be made, or even imagined, by me, but that doesn’t matter so long as the work is published in top journals, and stimulates others to explore the implications). Just one example: medical research lacks almost totally the dimension of evolution – why cells and organisms are as they are – and the freedom implicit in Venture research has the potential to radically alter the way we see medical problems, most notably ageing and disease.

One final point: interdisciplinary research is encouraged these days, but typically involves the collaboration of researchers with different expertise. Much falls between the gaps because no one person is responsible for asking, and trying to answer, probing questions across disciplines. There is a great deal to be said for an individual who thinks and roves widely, as a genuinely interdisciplinary thinker with access to ‘corrective’ expertise as necessary. This is what I am trying to do.

Dr Nick Lane

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