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John Sulston's work on Caenorhabditis elegans


Avoiding the threat of privatisation
Aaron Klug Scientist
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Mrs Thatcher, oh, what's his name, he later became Lord Mayor of London? What's his name? Levy? Not the current Lord Levy, Tony Blair's friend, another man? He'd been in one of the Ministries and he and Mrs Thatcher introduced... there were various... earlier on we'd had various scrutinies... we were scrutinised by... I've forgotten the name of the people who scrutinised us. Mrs Thatcher was very worried about this large public sector. Because she believed passionately that anything the public sector, as I said, had to be inefficient, and in fact Dai Rees told me, who was the Head of the MRC, he'd been Head of the Unilever Research Laboratory, he told me much later than when he left to become Head of the MRC, she criticised him for leaving a serious and important job in industry for a soft job at the MRC. Those were her words. And she had, of course, heard the news of this... a very doctrinaire business, and so they set out... it went in three stages, the first was the Levy Report and that was sent out... no, I've forgotten the name of the man, there was one which we were scrutinised, I've forgotten the name of the Minister, who was acting for Mrs Thatcher, the minister who... and one of the things they reported, I remember being in the Lab, they reported... we had 19 different kind of test tubes in the stores, why didn't we rationalise this? This was some modest scientist who'd been rolled in and didn't understand that there were many different instruments of different kinds, and so on. So that's was the first... it was called 'the scrutiny'. There was a scrutiny done.

Then after the scrutiny they set up what is called 'prior options', which was much more sensible. Prior options was... is some research worth doing? If it's research worth doing, is it best done in the private sector or in the public sector? And this was prior options. By this time, Mrs Thatcher had been replaced by John Major, and John Major's Ministry of Science kicked it into touch, roughly. It never got very far. He could see... well, before that had happened, I had... you see, there was total lack of understanding... in the Government what the Treasury's job was not to spend money to further research, but to save money. That was the... they still work like that. That's where all the cuts from, the Treasury. And although there'd been in the white heat of the Harold Wilson thing, when the government was going to spend money on technology. Do you remember Tony Benn and all that? That idea was to spend money, but that didn't work very well, because they didn't know how to choose winners, if you remember the politics of the time. No, this was partly, this doctrinaire policy was that people aren't good at spotting winners, that's best left to private industry. So it wasn't, although it was doctrinaire, it had some foundation. It wasn't just purely theoretical. But we already by this time had begun to do transfer of technology, and it was all worked out in the basic establishment. So we were marked, we were on the list, so I got... Crick and Watson to write letters to The Times to say about this laboratory, what it had done not just in Nobel Prizes, but it actually had inventions coming out of it, for which we could... I think the confocal had just then come out at this time. But this was in the early days. So when the finalists appeared, we went on the list, but the Dunn nutrition Lab was on the list, for example, and the so...called inspectors came to see me, to see how we worked here, and it turned out they were absolutely surprised to discover that I was Head of the Lab. They expected to have an administrator as Head of the Lab, and I was supposed to be, like on tap, you see, to head the science and recruit people, and there was no understanding because I discovered I was called in Treasury terms a Senior Manager, because I was a certain grade. The MRC grades are parallel to the Civil Service, and my grade put me as a Senior Manager. So I told them what I did, and they said, 'Are you a working scientist?' I said, 'Yes, most certainly, I try to be part of the time but I have an administrator, who was Anne, but she does the budget and things like that but I keep an eye on all that', and they thought this was all wrong. And this was the Civil Service! So I think we also helped educate the Civil Service. Things have changed... a good deal now.

Born in Lithuania, Aaron Klug (1926-2018) was a British chemist and biophysicist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982 for developments in electron microscopy and his work on complexes of nucleic acids and proteins. He studied crystallography at the University of Cape Town before moving to England, completing his doctorate in 1953 at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1981, he was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University. His long and influential career led to a knighthood in 1988. He was also elected President of the Royal Society, and served there from 1995-2000.

Listeners: John Finch Ken Holmes

John Finch is a retired member of staff of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. He began research as a PhD student of Rosalind Franklin's at Birkbeck College, London in 1955 studying the structure of small viruses by x-ray diffraction. He came to Cambridge as part of Aaron Klug's team in 1962 and has continued with the structural study of viruses and other nucleoproteins such as chromatin, using both x-rays and electron microscopy.

Kenneth Holmes was born in London in 1934 and attended schools in Chiswick. He obtained his BA at St Johns College, Cambridge. He obtained his PhD at Birkbeck College, London working on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus with Rosalind Franklin and Aaron Klug. After a post-doc at Childrens' Hospital, Boston, where he started to work on muscle structure, he joined to the newly opened Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge where he stayed for six years. He worked with Aaron Klug on virus structure and with Hugh Huxley on muscle. He then moved to Heidelberg to open the Department of Biophysics at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research where he remained as director until his retirement. During this time he completed the structure of tobacco mosaic virus and solved the structures of a number of protein molecules including the structure of the muscle protein actin and the actin filament. Recently he has worked on the molecular mechanism of muscle contraction. He also initiated the use of synchrotron radiation as a source for X-ray diffraction and founded the EMBL outstation at DESY Hamburg. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1981 and is a member of a number of scientific academies.

Tags: MRC, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Harold Wilson

Duration: 5 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008