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The effect of competition in science


Scientific progress: The heroic and classical periods
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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The question is whether in the ‘60s we were right in thinking that all the problems of molecular biology had been... had been solved in outline. They were solved in outline because that is essentially what we... we saw the solution on, and we thought then the rest is... the rest is just, you know, routine work. Now, one of the remarkable things about science is that routine work itself generates its important problems which you don't see, and of course as you stand on the brink or on the edge... or on the transition point as science goes from the heroic... its heroic period into its classical period as Gunther Stent used to say, which of course by about 1961 that is exactly where molecular biology stood; there were no longer great heroes that would do all of this work, that were evangelists in some way that was bringing, that were bringing new message to... to everybody, because now the church was admitting everybody and everybody was becoming converted. So it's not... it's not useful to be, if you like... I mean, being an early Christian must have been exciting, but to be one later is boring, because everybody's converted. The only thing of being an old Jesuit in the church is you know what's wrong with the church basically, which the new converts don't. It's important to keep quiet about this in the early stages of building up the church. So I think the... and I think we were quite right, if arrogant, to say that for us that wasn't the sort of thing we wanted to do. Now of course in biology, problems have a remarkable way of not being solved, of never being solved. Take DNA replication. It has been thought to have been solved, I think, at least 10 times in the past, it's thought to be solved today. But I guarantee you people will be working on DNA replication for the next 20 years, for the simple reason that at each level is solved you, first want to know whether... what are the components that do it, then you see that it's not enough just to stick bases in and propagate the chain, you've got to have an editing step so there's going to be some more stuff that comes into that. And so I think these things accrete problems. It may well be that that will be the interest of an extremely small group that will continue with this and will become refined specialists and this just may be a niche of molecular biology which will have been exploited by one particular set of molecular biologists. I think it's important that that should go on, but people feel it can't... it's no longer a mystery. And because it's no longer a mystery people feel it can be solved by normal science. And it's very important, I think, to grasp what can or can't be solved by normal science, you can just go back to it there.

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: Gunther Stent

Duration: 3 minutes, 57 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010