Science & Environment

Biologist Venki Ramakrishnan to lead Royal Society

Venki Ramakrishnan Image copyright SPL

The next president of the Royal Society will be the Nobel-winning Cambridge researcher Prof Sir Venki Ramakrishnan.

Prof Ramakrishnan shared the 2009 chemistry Nobel Prize for discovering the precise structure of ribosomes - the molecular machines that manufacture proteins inside all living cells.

He will succeed geneticist Sir Paul Nurse in December 2015.

The society's council met on Wednesday to confirm the appointment.

Prof Nurse took on the role in 2010 and will step down after the customary five-year term.

After hearing of the confirmation, Prof Ramakrishnan told BBC News he was "very honoured" to be the society's president elect.

The position is one of the most important in British science. The Royal Society has existed since 1660 and its president is a key advocate for science in the UK and the world.

"I feel very touched that the Royal Society has chosen me for this job," Prof Ramakrishnan said, "especially because I only came to Britain 16 years ago from the US."

The eminent, American-British structural biologist was born in India and works at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. He is one of 14 Nobel winners from that laboratory.

He has previously said that upon winning the Nobel Prize in 2009, he had insisted it must be a hoax call. The new appointment comes as less of a surprise, since it is follows a vote by the society's fellowship - now confirmed by its council.

'Excellent appointment'

Other fellows have greeted the news warmly - though it is widely acknowledged that Prof Nurse has set a strong example for advocacy and will, of course, be a hard act to follow.

The research for which Prof Ramakrishnan shared that the Nobel was commenced in the US, where he has spent much of his working life. He moved to Cambridge in 1999.

His predecessor, Prof Nurse, was also a Nobel laureate, as has been the case with many previous society presidents.

Image copyright SPL
Image caption His work on the 3D structure of ribosomes won Prof Ramakrishnan a share of the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry

More unusual is for two successive presidents to come from the biological sciences; the role has been held by scientists across nearly every discipline - including chemistry, physics, astronomy, mathematics and zoology.

The presidency has never been held by a woman.

Royal Society fellow Sir Colin Blakemore, a neuroscientist and former head of the Medical Research Council, told the BBC it was "an excellent appointment" in many ways.

"Firstly, appointing the first Indian-born president of the Royal Society sends a strong message about the importance of the contribution of immigrants to British science," said Prof Blakemore, from the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

"Secondly, Venki is distinguished not only for his superlative science, but also for his forthright and intelligent opinions on science policy. So this suggests that under his leadership, the Royal Society will continue its good work advising and influencing the government on science policy."

The new president elect expressed similar sentiments.

"I think in some ways the Royal Society, ever since its inception, has reflected the best traditions of openness in Britain," Prof Ramakrishnan told the BBC. "I think of Britain as a particularly open and tolerant society."

He gave the example of the society's welcoming stance towards European scientists in its early years - notably the Dutch "father of microbiology" Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.

"All of his important work was published by the Royal Society, and that changed our view of microorganisms," Prof Ramakrishnan said.

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