PETER AGRE ON: TRUMP THE VIL­LAIN, BECK­HAM THE PM AND GET­TING TOO GEEKED OUT

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION - Jack Grove

Don­ald Trump often brags about the size of his sup­port base, but it is un­likely to in­clude many No­bel lau­re­ates, our sur­vey sug­gests.

Nu­mer­ous No­bel prizewin­ners spoke about their dis­dain for the bil­lion­aire prop­erty ty­coon now oc­cu­py­ing the White House, cit­ing him as a di­rect threat to sci­en­tific progress. How­ever, few took is­sue with him as strongly as Peter Agre, the malaria re­searcher at Baltimore’s Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity who won the No­bel Prize in Chem­istry in 2003 for the dis­cov­ery of wa­ter chan­nels in cell mem­branes.

“Trump could play a vil­lain in a Bat­man movie – ev­ery­thing he does is wicked or self­ish,” Agre tells Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, de­scrib­ing the US pres­i­dent as “ex­traor­di­nar­ily un­in­formed and bad-na­tured”.

Agre is par­tic­u­larly wor­ried by how Trump “flaunts his ig­no­rance” to ap­peal to a group of Amer­i­cans who are happy to dis­miss the opin­ions of sci­en­tists.

Those who en­dorse Trump’s pop­ulist dis­missal of cli­mate change as a “hoax”, or ex­pert sci­en­tific opin­ion more gen­er­ally, are “threat­ened by ed­u­cated peo­ple”, be­lieves Agre. “We are usu­ally from wealthy back­grounds, we have in­vest­ments, tidy homes and read books – they do not re­spect that,” he says.

Science has not done as much as it could to bridge this grow­ing cul­tural di­vide be­tween the pub­lic and the sci­en­tific community, be­lieves Agre. Many sci­en­tists are guilty of rev­el­ling in a geeky per­sona that many in the gen­eral pub­lic feel com­fort­able dis­miss­ing.

“When peo­ple can pick out sci­en­tists from a dis­tance, we are maybe not pro­ject­ing the best pos­si­ble im­age,” says Agre, jok­ing that “maybe we shouldn’t look like Doc Brown from Back to the Fu­ture”.

He is in awe of the “phe­nom­e­nal work” be­ing un­der­taken at sci­en­tific labs through­out the world, but in­tel­lect alone does not make a great sci­en­tist, he con­tends.

“I do not feel that I had in­cred­i­ble sci­en­tific tal­ent when I was a stu­dent – I was just as in­ter­ested in jour­nal­ism or pol­i­tics at the time,” he ex­plains. “Any suc­cess that

I achieved is some­thing of an as­ton­ish­ing mir­a­cle.”

Hav­ing com­pleted a chem­istry de­gree at Augs­burg Col­lege in Minneapolis, Agre en­rolled at Johns Hop­kins’ med­i­cal school, which ex­empted him from the Viet­nam War draft. Al­though the lab­o­ra­tory that he sub­se­quently joined was “very good”, it lacked any fa­mous names; his im­me­di­ate su­per­vi­sor, Vann Ben­nett, had been his class­mate at med­i­cal school. How­ever, Agre was al­lowed to fol­low his in­ter­ests as a post­doc­toral fel­low, and his work on cholera paved the way for his No­bel prizewin­ning re­search, he ex­plains.

“If you just pay at­ten­tion to what is be­ing hyped in the sci­en­tific me­dia, you can miss out,” Agre says, adding that his ex­pe­ri­ence shows that “fan­tas­tic science is often emerg­ing from not-so-fa­mous places”.

But any young sci­en­tists dream­ing of win­ning a No­bel prize should put such thoughts out of their mind, Agre ad­vises.

“If you have a grad­u­ate stu­dent try­ing to com­plete their PhD and change the world at the same time, they’ll prob­a­bly fail on both counts,” he says.

While Agre may worry about the vil­lains pop­u­lat­ing world pol­i­tics, he is also hope­ful that some equally heroic fig­ures will ar­rive to be­gin the fight­back. Yet his sug­ges­tion for who the UK’s next pro­gres­sive po­lit­i­cal leader should be is an un­likely one. “I once met David Beck­ham in an air­port lounge in New Zealand. It was very late, but he kindly wrote a note for one of my daugh­ters, who is a fan – he was an ab­so­lute gen­tle­man.

“Maybe a celebrity can­di­date could ac­tu­ally do some good.”

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