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Personal interests outside of science


The profession of science will change
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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And of course, I… I believe that… I think the profession of science will change markedly over the next 25 years because I don't think it can last as it… in its present structure. Now, the present structure wants… the present structure is assumed on infinite growth. In other words, every student expects to be a post-doc, every post-doc expects to be an assistant professor with five students. Every assistant professor expects to be an associate professor with eight post-docs and five students and so on and so forth and that can't last and I… and I think the industrial structure will have to change. And what I think will happen in the future is that, I think, people will do research for only part of their lives and I think research – with very few exceptions – is really the job for young people, largely because as I've said they contain the required ignorance that is necessary for this, and I think it would be perfectly reasonable for people to do research for 5 years or 8 years of their lives and then go on to do other things, like be doctors or be farmers or something else in society. But I think the profession of the professional scientist with a career structure will change, because I think it may well be that doing biology will become like the old days of doing natural history but with molecular tools, and I think we have to have some solution of that if we are to… if we are to simply maintain the advance, because all of history shows that notwithstanding the great growth and professionalisation of science the number of important sciences has remained constant, roughly speaking, since the 17th century. So, the point is… is that as long as those people gravitate to the subject that'll be fine. For the rest of it, as I've always said, we should always decide, I mean, why is it necessary to solve all problems in this generation? There are things we should leave to our successors and it seems to me there are lots of problems – I could write them all down – in which it wouldn't matter if they were solved 30 years in the future. I mean there… there are clearly problems that we need to solve now, but lots of them could wait and that's what I think we… we would do. And the last thing, I think, is that I think DNA will come to occupy the centre of biology as it has in the past. And I wanted very much to have… because I think man will destroy everything living on this planet, I would like to preserve everything in the form of DNA. And what I wanted was… and I created these words very carefully, because before the recession I thought I could interest the Japanese in funding this but I'm afraid this isn't the case now; which is to have a DNA treasure house. I like the word ‘treasure house’, not ‘museum’, and the idea would be this: is collect the DNA of every living species and just store it. I mean, ultimately we could certainly sequence it and find out what it is long after it's gone, so why trust to this terrible risk of... of survival of DNA in the form of a fossil when we could deliberately fossilise it, and then who knows, in 20 years’ time, 50 years’ time we could have our own Jurassic Park, except we wouldn't be as stupid as they were the way they do it and we could recreate these organisms. So I think that may well be the sort of thing, and organisms will be characterised on their DNA. I mean it's happening now in the sense that we've now come to realise that more than 90% of the micro-organisms in nature can't be cultivated, but we could retrieve them by their DNA. So there's a whole… whole areas of biology that are waiting to be done.

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: 5 minutes, 19 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010