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Having my cake and eating it


Why I wanted to work in academia
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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As soon as I moved back to Detroit, to Wayne State University, and to my own programme... academic programme, there was the question of what would I work on. And that perhaps, also brings up the whole question of why did I want to work in academia, and I think the reasons are probably two, both of them romantic and really not very sensible, because one would say I had everything I needed. I didn’t have to write grant applications, I was working in an industrial place where I made... established the priorities, well-equipped, etc, etc. But, just as in many... I think particularly Jewish families you often hear, 'my son the doctor', I mean this idea of... one should have a certain profession. I would say that to research scientists, the ultimate is academia. You imagine it, and somehow... and it is even more so, or was more so at that time, let’s say, in England, where at Oxbridge, I mean anyone having anything to do with industry was just a tradesman, and... and the Dons at Oxbridge wouldn’t dream of doing anything along these lines. The class structure of England was replicated in the professional class structure in this case, but that’s true in many other places as well, even to this day. Somehow a professor is imagined to be a much more wonderful thing, you have all this freedom of... of... you're in control of your schedule, your... the priorities of what you work on, and so on. These of course are illusions, particularly nowadays they are totally illusions, because research is now very expensive, and universities don’t give you a penny, and you’ve got to go and find it from all over, and that leads to an awful lot of... not only brutal competition, and also all kinds of ethical shortcuts, if you wish, but also an unbelievable amount of time that is spent on that sort of thing, and anyone who thinks that you just teach for a couple of hours and that’s what you do, and otherwise you twiddle your thumbs, are dreaming. So, it isn’t always rosy, but first of all it was rosy at that time, or anyway I imagined that way, and I was realistic enough to also say I’ve got to get it out of my system, whether it’s rational or not doesn’t make any difference. I imagine it that way, so I better do it, and that was certainly the reason for that, but the other reason was that freedom of choosing a problem, because even though, let’s say as vice president in charge of research of a company I could choose them, but I was, of course, how should I say, a servant of the company, in the best sense of the word, with real loyalty, and I knew they hired me in order to make money, and not just to satisfy my own intellectual curiosity. And I’d have to pick problems that in one way or another would have practical consequences, and they better have them sooner rather than later. Whereas many academics practice a form of grantsmanship that borders on outright lying, sometimes naivety, and sometimes deliberate lying, of saying, you know, they’re working on a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s, or something like this, when they are light years away from that, and while theoretically they could do that, but no one will expect the solution within their lifetime, and yet they expect hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars of support. Now, I practiced that myself, that grantsmanship, and justified it by saying, well, I actually won’t be curing cancer, or Alzheimer’s, or whatever it is, but in the process of doing what I was convinced was important research, or frequently was, we’d end up with other things, because in basic research you can’t predict what you get, and that’s what basic research is all about, and that’s what the function of a university is. So I justified it in that context.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: Detroit, Wayne State University, Oxbridge

Duration: 4 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008