Sir Paul Nurse, Convocation 2015 Honorary Degree recipient

Sir Paul Nurse, Convocation 2015 Honorary Degree recipient


Chancellor, President, members of the University,
fellow graduates, ladies and gentlemen, it’s always a pleasure to come to Toronto especially
when you put on such beautiful weather as today. It’s one of my favourite cities in
the world. And it is indeed an honour for me at this Convocation to have received this
Honourary Doctor of Science from the University today. But listening to all of the jobs I’ve
seemed to have had, it looks as if I can’t keep a job for more than five minutes. This is one of the great Universities of the
world. With 85,000 students, 15,000 of them graduate students, 15,000 from overseas with
great traditions in research. Banting and Macleod, the discovers of insulin, the understanding
of diabetes, Nobel 1923. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1986 – John Polanyi who I met just
before lunch today. Authors Northrup Frye, Robertson Davies, both of whom I’ve read.
Intellectuals like Marshall McLuhan who I simply didn’t understand. I’m indeed honoured to become part of this
community. Now the most important thing I have to say today is to congratulate the new
graduates. PhD. students, Undergraduates, master Students from the Faulty of Law. It
takes a lot of work to get a degree especially from one as good as this University. So congratulations
on all you have achieved. You should be proud of yourselves and you should thank those who
have helped you to get here, who are also proud of you, your parents, your relatives,
your partners, your friends, you colleagues, they are all very proud of you and so am I.
Congratulations. Some of you make carry on in an academic career.
Some of you will take what you’ve learned here to some alternative career. Some of you
will do something quite differ rent. But whatever it is that you decide to do, good luck in
your future to all of you. Ancient honourary graduates like me are usually expected to
offer good advice to new graduates. In thinking about this, I’m always reminded about Oscar
Wilde’s thoughts about advice. He said, “the only thing to do with good advice is to pass
it on. It’s never of any use to oneself.” But despite that I’ll say a few things. The
first is to recommend that all of your life you keep your curiosity. You will have it
now but it often diminishes as you get older. The world is a wonderful place, endlessly
interesting which can enchant you all your life. I agree with the Historian George Trevelyanwho
said “disinterested intellectual curiosity is the lifeblood of real civilization.” The second thing I want to tell is remain
passionate, be an enthusiast, embrace causes, pursue your interests, care about the world,
care about the people in that world. Do not let grass grow under your feet. Do things,
as Horace said in the first century B.C. “carpe diem, while we are talking time is fleeing,
seize the day.” My third piece of advice, keep your sense
of humour. Whilst being intensely curious, passionate and enthusiastic and so on, do
not forget to laugh, particularly at yourself. It’s one of the best anecdotes to the downs
in life. It is humour. Being able to laugh, not to take yourself too seriously. These
are my suggestions for advice to you. But do not forget what the great British scientist
Max Perutz said about advice after a similar speech like this. He said, “one final word,
never follow the advice of your elders.” I want to say now something more generally
about university education and research. Higher education is becoming very complex especially
with the focus on financial targets, budgets, research assessment, impact, strategic aims
and so on. And with all of this it can be easy to lose sight of the main reason for
having a university. It is to teach students at all levels to think, to value freedom of
thought, to be tolerant of others’ opinions, to respect innovation. Robert Hutchins of
Chicago University summed much of this up by saying, “education is not to reform students
or to amuse them or even to make them expert technicians. It is to inflame their intellects,
to teach them to think.” Students need to be taught to think and to think differently.
If they leave a university without the passion to challenge, to disagree, to quest for truth
however uncomfortable, then that education has failed. It’s an honourable charge you
have, members of the university. Let me turn to research, especially scientific
research because that’s my trade. That is what I do. I still have a research laboratory.
My strong view, passion really, is that research is central to a modern society, particularly
if that society is to succeed. It provides the knowledge which leads of course to a better
understanding of ourselves and of the natural world around us. That contributes to our culture
and to our civilization. But it also contributes in other ways to the public good. Benefitting
society t improving our health, the quality of our lives, driving innovation to support
our economies. Securing sustainability and protecting the environment. That last benefit
is crucial for Canada with so much great and magnificent wilderness. It needs protecting,
it needs to be maintained, not just for Canada but for the rest of the world. Science and
knowledge can contribute much to society. Francis Bacon, 17th century English Philosopher
and Statesman said, “knowledge is power.” Sometimes you see it
written over a school. Knowledge is power and Science improves learning and knowledge
and leads to the relief of mans’ estate. In other words, knowledge is useful, very useful
in fact. There is almost nothing that we do in our lives, every hour indeed, of our lives,
which has not been touched by what science and research and the pursuit of knowledge
has delivered over the centuries. In the Natural Sciences, the Social Sciences, Humanities,
Arts, Medicine, Engineering, all have contributed to everything that we do every day. Carrying
out research is a demanding task. Researchers need to have in-depth knowledge, be creative,
understand the values of the academic endeavor. Researchers are creative, they thrive of freedom
of thought to pursue an investigation wherever it leads to uncover sometimes uncomfortable
truths. A researcher who is restrained or is too strongly directed from above will never
be effective. Similarly, in my view, societies that are not free and do not encourage the
free exchange of ideas or free discussion will not thrive. From what I’ve read and been
told on recent times, sometimes government researchers in Canada have not had the best
of times in recent years. But maybe this will change in the coming months and years. It’s
very important that scientists are allowed to speak and are properly funded. Perhaps
the tide is turning such that research can contribute more to society, to the economy,
to the public good. I certainly hope so. I’ve been a Scientist for many years and I’ve
emphasized just now the more utilitarian aspects of research in science, what it is useful
for. But that is not the whole story. As I’ve said, science contributes greatly to our culture
and to civilization. And I want to finish with a quote from Robert Wilson. He was the
first Director of the Furmi Lab, the large particle accelerator located in Chicago, now
superseded by Cern in Geneva. He was being questioned in the 1960s I believe, by the
U.S. Congress as to how Furmi Lab who help national security. When he was given that
question he replied, “it has to do with the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has
nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”
Great quote. Thank you University of Toronto. Congratulations
again to all of you graduates. Thank you.

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