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Fraud and embezzlement in science


The effect of competition in science
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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[Q] What about competition? I mean, when you took the worm, you were in a lovely position because you had no competitors. Was that an issue? I mean, was competition ever something that ever affected your approach to science?

I... I'm not... the question is about competition. Well, the... well, there's one thing that I think is very important to say, is if you're always doing new things there's always very little competition. And it could be argued that in my career I've got out when the competition got hot, if you like. Or maybe I got out when the science got cool, that's another way of putting it. No, I don't think you can be affected by competition, although I think a lot of people are. And I think I've always had a consciousness of saying that if our lab starts to be driven, as many labs are, by the forces of competition, then we're in for a bad time for the simple reason that a whole lot of very different things will operate in what I think is... is... and ruin what I think is... is our work and which... which has this great meaning for us. And so I've always liked to feel — and even up to now in the work I'm doing now — I've always liked to feel, well my people should feel that they're out there alone and they can actually give the problem their big attention and not sit and worry that there are 2500 people sitting in Paducah Tech and are going to, you know, scoop them. And I have to say that that's the great morale builder in a lab, and that's what I think you want your young people to feel, because the rest of their lives is going to be spent in... in dealing with that, and in... in dealing with these social forces. So competition isn't... isn't a meaning... isn't meaning, and I know that when other people start to work with this it's okay, because I think we encourage them because all they do is help to build up our reputation. That's what I think is... you know that I'm a great follower of... and a great admirer of Talleyrand. Talleyrand was a remarkable person, a survivor of everything. He was of course Napoleon's foreign minister, but he persisted right throughout the most incredible changes of regime in France and survived everything to come out at the other end. But he had one remark which I have always thought is important, and it is, ‘never do for yourself that which you can get other people to do for you’. So we don't want to eat the world, but if we can get other people to help digest it, that becomes a very important part of science.

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



Duration: 3 minutes, 36 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010