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Where is science going?


Changes in science
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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[Q] Maybe you want to comment on two, what I think are actually related topics, which are the basis on which science is supported these days, and also where science seems to be going.

Well, that's a very large set of questions isn't it? It's sometimes difficult to develop enough of a detachment, because I'm still in the middle of it, and only from time to time, because of, I guess, age, I can see a change, and certainly there has been a change – in biological science. What is... what is in the key ingredient?

Well, one of the key ingredients is... is size: the fact is the numbers of biological scientists have increased mightily as compared to when I started in, say, 1954 at the Johnson Foundation, in 1960, '57 to '60, at the Rockefeller Institute. The numbers have increased. Secondly the technology has become extraordinary. It's easy to... in fact marketable, you can buy the kit. You don't have to do anything yourself synthetically; you buy the kit, you pay a little lease, but then it speeds everything up and you just have to look at the profusion of journalists in specialization to see what's happened.

An example: when I dropped out of college and my mother insisted that I'd have to go back or else I'd have to work, I went to Berkeley and took two, two or three, two and a half chemistry courses to make up the time, and I remember the bookstore there. Well, there was Linus Pauling's book. There were a couple of books: there was Shakespeare, there was Thoreau, speak about names I've mentioned before, but nowadays what you'll see is, oh, Quantum Electrodynamics for Sophomores, or a huge... So if you look at the booklist, for example, at the invoices of the Berkeley bookstore in 1960 or 1955 even better and compared them with the invoices now, you'd see a symptom of what I'm talking about. An extraordinary explosion of specialties, an extraordinary increase of the number of details for young people who maybe should have been more instructed in how to write and think; but who perform in these specialized courses, which are usually taught by assistants rather than by the great professor himself.

So there are these big changes, and certainly part of the change is economic, isn't it? That the National Institutes of Health is a major economic force supporting this kind of work, and we're talking over $20 billion a year expended on this, and a whole system of gradation and decision about how you do this, supposedly fairly. But what happens I think is a vast bureaucratization and a careerism sets in. I mean, young people are not allowed to be crazy enough I think early enough, the way it used to be in the good old days.

US biologist Gerald Edelman (1929-2014) successfully constructed a precise model of an antibody, a protein used by the body to neutralise harmful bacteria or viruses and it was this work that won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 jointly with Rodney R Porter. He then turned his attention to neuroscience, focusing on neural Darwinism, an influential theory of brain function.

Listeners: Ralph J. Greenspan

Dr. Greenspan has worked on the genetic and neurobiological basis of behavior in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) almost since the inception of the field, studying with one of its founders, Jeffery Hall, at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where he received his Ph.D. in biology in 1979. He subsequently taught and conducted research at Princeton University and New York University where he ran the W.M. Keck Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology, relocating to San Diego in 1997 to become a Senior Fellow in Experimental Neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute. Dr. Greenspan’s research accomplishments include studies of physiological and behavioral consequences of mutations in a neurotransmitter system affecting one of the brain's principal chemical signals, studies making highly localized genetic alterations in the nervous system to alter behavior, molecular identification of genes causing naturally occurring variation in behavior, and the demonstration that the fly has sleep-like and attention-like behavior similar to that of mammals. Dr. Greenspan has been awarded fellowships from the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation, the Searle Scholars Program, the McKnight Foundation, the Sloan Foundation and the Klingenstein Foundation. In addition to authoring research papers in journals such as "Science", "Nature", "Cell", "Neuron", and "Current Biology", he is also author of an article on the subject of genes and behavior for "Scientific American" and several books, including "Genetic Neurobiology" with Jeffrey Hall and William Harris, "Flexibility and Constraint in Behavioral Systems" with C.P. Kyriacou, and "Fly Pushing: The Theory and Practice of Drosophila Genetics", which has become a standard work in all fruit fly laboratories.

Tags: Johnson Foundation, Rockefeller Institute, Quantum Electrodynamics for Sophomores, 1960, 1955, National Institutes of Health

Duration: 3 minutes, 9 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008