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The boundaries of freedom in research


Freedom in Research: Learning from the Rockefeller Institute
Christian de Duve Scientist
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Rockefeller has been the model for this institute and the principles are multidisciplinary collaboration and priority to excellence. Now that's a very important point about Rockefeller in comparison to other universities. At Rockefeller there are no departments; there are laboratories and the laboratories are directed by scientist who do what they want to do, what they are interested in, and they are appointed on the basis of excellence. And if you find an investigator, a first-class investigator, and his interest is neural biology, well, then, you have a lab of neural biology; and if you find an investigator who is interested in micro bacteria, leprosy or tuberculosis, then you happen to have a lab, but you don't fill in positions – you don't have departments that have to be filled in. Whereas in a university you have to teach everything and therefore you need an immunologist, you need a bacteriologist, you need... and that's a big difference. And we've applied the same principle here. We... we put the premium on excellence; and then, if we are lucky enough to find a really first-class investigator, we let him do what he wants and just tell him that he should, after a few years, try to find his own funding. That is, we provide... when we have a really good man, we have enough funds, a small endowment, so that we can offer a new investigator facilities and a budget to start something, but by three to five years we feel that he should be self-supporting and it works that way. I think Det Bronk, whom I mentioned as... as President of Rockefeller University when I joined and a very distinguished American scientist, put it in a... a nutshell: he said, 'As a principle,' he said, 'find the best people, and when you have them, keep out of their way.' So we don't believe in program research; we don't believe in a top administration that tells the people what to do, that creates programs and a lot of bureaucratic rules. No, it's a... it's a bottom-up kind of organisation; we get the scientists and they do what they want – under control of course. I mean, you can't just do what you want – you have to do good work and it has to fit within the general philosophy of the institute. If somebody came here and he said he wants to find the next... another extra solar planet, I would say, 'Sorry, but that doesn't work.'

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: Rockefeller Institute, Detlev Bronk

Duration: 3 minutes, 35 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008