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The importance of pure research


The purpose of science
Christian de Duve Scientist
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So much for the research, but now we have to go back again to 1968. 1968 is a sort of watershed in the history of academic life in the world. It started in Berkeley and it continued all over the world... Paris, there was a sort of a revolution by the students who claimed more... a greater say in academic matters, who revolted... rebelled against the sort of supercilious superiority of dons and other academic persons; the... they didn't accept the authority of the professors the way we used to in Germany – the Geheimrat, everybody bowed in front of them. Especially they... they clamoured for more meaningful, more socially-involved science. They wanted science to be more involved with the real problems of the world. And, at that time, I myself... before that time, I had been basically... basically is not the word to use... I had been a major proponent of basic research, strictly pure... so-called pure research. I had learned this from my chief, the physiology professor, Bouckaert: science... the purpose... and the only important purpose of science is to increase knowledge, is to promote our understanding of the world around us, and that's enough, and that is the main goal of science – it's part of culture, increasing our understanding of the world is the only valid purpose for research, and let the public pay for it. I was, at that time, really rather negatively disposed toward any sort of applied research, even medical research. I felt, well, it's my duty to make discoveries; they discover lysosomes and let the medical people worry about what are the possible medical applications. Let the pharmaceutical industry take care of the possible new drugs or therapeutic means that could possibly emerge from this new knowledge; my purpose is to just advance knowledge and let the others dirty their hands with doing something useful.

Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve (1917-2013) was best known for his work on understanding and categorising subcellular organelles. He won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1974 for his joint discovery of lysosomes, the subcellular organelles that digest macromolecules and deal with ingested bacteria.

Listeners: Peter Newmark

Peter Newmark has recently retired as Editorial Director of BioMed Central Ltd, the Open Access journal publisher. He obtained a D. Phil. from Oxford University and was originally a research biochemist at St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical School in London, but left research to become Biology Editor and then Deputy Editor of the journal Nature. He then became Managing Director of Current Biology Ltd, where he started a series of Current Opinion journals, and was founding Editor of the journal Current Biology. Subsequently he was Editorial Director for Elsevier Science London, before joining BioMed Central Ltd.

Tags: student revolt, science, research, knowledge

Duration: 3 minutes, 28 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008