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Resigning as director and renewing my interest in the nervous system


Dealing with the monsters above and the idiots below
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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As the ‘70s approached, I then made another big mistake in my life, which is I became the director of the laboratory. That I think I… I did out of some kind of loyalty to the institution. In fact, I became the director elect some two years before I took it over, in 1977, because the lab had tremendous financial difficulties. It hasn't… it wasn't really properly funded and its organisation was… was okay when there was lots of money, but once the money began to shrink in the boundaries it wasn't okay. And I mean, it was just ludicrous to work in a lab where you… you run out of methanol. I mean, there just isn't… there isn't any money to buy any methanol. And you have to, you know, there's no way you can do this. And so I took over the budget of the lab in '77 when I was made Director Elect, and I then became the Director in '79 – 1979. And I think that doing that was at least in my… as I look back on it, I think that was a big mistake, because it's not, it's not a thing that I really like doing. And I realise that people who go into these positions become like windows, that is, where the people above them look through them at the people below them and you become a mediator between two impossible groups, namely the monsters above and the idiots below. And you also, I think, in those jobs, run out of imagination very quickly. One can always argue that in science most laboratories… people are divided into classes depending on how… how much in the future they worried about. And the active scientist is only worried about two or three days in the future. And a few more senior people are worried about the next month. But in a laboratory you have to start to get worried about a year, two years. You also have to worry about renewal. And I'd been a great… I had a great feeling for the issue of, how do we keep it going? Everybody says you have a great laboratory and then after a while it just turns to dust. The things decay. And the Cavendish Laboratory was the greatest place in physics, and now it's sort of trivial. And we'd been going since just after the war, and it had been 30 years – 1976– and you know, would there be a future? And the future I've always felt is strongly assured by getting new blood, and one of the things that did this was the rapid turnover. And I adopted a policy of hiring people. But my colleagues didn't agree with this. They thought they… they knew all about science, the best way… to go forward, which is that they should have all the appointments. So after a while we didn't see eye to eye. And I just found I just ignored them after a while. Because I thought getting in new… new subjects and new people was the core of science. And after that period, which I spent quite a lot of time fiddling around with budgets and keeping the books of the lab and looking after the till and trying to get all the appointments organised, I had just had enough.

South African Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.



Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories



Tags: Cavendish Laboratory

Duration: 4 minutes, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010