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The importance of space in universities


Building the molecular biology department at Harvard
James Watson Scientist
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Because there was no long-term plan to have a... you know, a Department of DNA Studies so it was occurring in a Department of Biology, and you had other biological disciplines, such as they still remember the remark that we should not appoint anyone in ecology. It's just not ever exciting enough. So they still can't remember that I said, you know, and I told them at that time, absolutely don't appoint a developmental biology, you will be definite old-fashioned because DNA hadn't yet reached the field.

Now, if you really didn't think DNA that was an arrogant remark. It was totally correct. But it sounded arrogant. Okay. We slowly won by proposing people who were so good they couldn't turn them down, so after Wally... no, after I came, it was getting Matt Meselson. That wasn't any problem. He'd done the Meselson's solid experiment. Then the next person was Wally, then Mark Ptashne, then... you know, we got Steve Harrison, Don Wylie. If you appoint really people who are as good as anyone, if you propose people who are as good as anyone in the world, and if your university has any standards you might win, because no matter how much the people... the other way is for universities to make a bold move like Harvard did without the consent of any other faculty and say, 'We're going to have a new Department of Stem Cell Biology, and we don't care what anyone else at Harvard thinks'.

Larry Summers wanted Stem Cell Biology and they got it, okay. Now, if your president is... got right advice that may be the only way you can move forward, because to get a positive vote out of an academic faculty is sometimes... you know, if you go on the assumption everyone over 50 will be against you, okay, which is often the case because you're trying to change radically what it's going to be like, democracy is a very hard way. And that's why most universities never change in rank, because once you've set in the principle democracy, they will try and continue to be exactly what they are. If they're first class they want to be first class, if they're second class they'll be quite happy being second class and so on.

American molecular biologist James Dewey Watson is probably best known for discovering the structure of DNA for which he was jointly awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. His long career has seen him teaching at Harvard and Caltech, and taking over the directorship of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. From 1988 to 1992, James Watson was head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health. His current research focuses on the study of cancer.

Listeners: Martin Raff Walter Gratzer

Martin Raff is a Canadian-born neurologist and research biologist who has made important contributions to immunology and cell development. He has a special interest in apoptosis, the phenomenon of cell death.



Listen to Martin Raff at Web of Stories



Walter Gratzer is Emeritus Professor of Biophysical Chemistry at King's College London, and was for most of his research career a member of the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council. He is the author of several books on popular science. He was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard and has known Jim Watson since that time

Tags: Wally Gilbert, Matt Meselson, Mark Ptashne, Steve Harrison, Don Wylie, Larry Summers

Duration: 2 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010