The interview was obtained on October 17, 2009. The answers were received by me in writing, in preparation for a meeting that took place at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (at the time called Burnham Institute) on November 14, 2009, where Renato Dulbecco spoke about these topics. The interview was until now unpublished. The questions originated from his autobiography (Dulbecco R. 1989).
Renato Dulbecco received the Lasker Award in 1964 and the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1975. Among other achievements, he was one of the main proponents of the effort that lead to the sequencing of the human genome. Max Delbruck and Salvador Luria, mentioned in the interview, were the initiators of the “phage group” an informal scientific community that formed in the mid 20th century, and played an important role in the origins of molecular biology. The group was based on collaborations but also on summer meetings, usually at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, that involved teaching, experimental work and social activities. Max Delbruck was a former physicist who had been part of the meetings organized by Niels Bohr in Copenhagen among the scientists that founded quantum mechanics. These meetings were known for a spirit of free discussion, open criticism, and wide collaboration. Max Delbruck is credited with bringing this attitude to the phage group (Segre’ G. 2007).
Dear Professor Dulbecco,
Some of us have read your autobiography and those of a few other scientists and this originated several very thought-provoking questions. We were wondering if you were interested in sending us comments on these questions, in order to stimulate a discussion.
1 - Open communication
From your autobiographical book (translated from Italian):
“What a difference between the time of Luria and Delbruck and now! I had learned that science is open, that there are no secrets. Now the world of science is made of sealed compartments”
The Internet can not only support open communication but also potentially give credit with certainty. Could this help to restore open communication as it was at the beginning of molecular biology?
As you indicate, the contents of my autobiography have raised some questions among those who read them. I will be glad to contribute my thoughts on some of the issues raised, as you have suggested.
1) Open Communication: The autobiography points out the large differences of the state of science between the period the autobiography was written and that in which it developed (the period of Luria and Delbruck). The present state of science is considered to be made up of sealed compartments, contrary to the frankness and easy communication of the earlier period.
The question is raised whether the present freedom of internet communication can restore this sharing of ideas and, especially of experimental data. This depends on the individual and how much data that person is willing to share and open up to free discussion with his peer group.
2 – Criticism and friendship in science
Severe criticism was the norm in the schools of Giuseppe Levi and Delbruck. There were also several mentions of friendship among scientists, for examples with Rita Levi-Montalcini and at the Cold Spring Harbor summer meetings.
Are these two aspects related in science? Is friendship necessary in scientific collaborations in order to allow stronger criticism?
2) Criticism and friendships in science: The severe criticism maintained by Giuseppe Levi led to the development of outstanding biologists like Rita Levi-Montalcini and Salvador Luria. Criticism is essential in the formation of a young scientist.
Constructive friendship developed under such conditions and, as mentioned, especially during the summer at Cold Spring Harbor where there was a convergence of many scientists. I am convinced, although it might be difficult to prove, the exchange of ideas during these periods was vital to the development of the scientific research of that time.
3 – Scientific authorities, prevailing opinions and innovation
The advice of Delbruck could at times be wrong, and you decided to always follow your own judgment. There was also a statement that reviewers often do not appreciate novelty. In this respect, we also find interesting what Seymour Benzer once said (according to Nature, Vol 451:139 2008): “If everyone you talk to says you shouldn’t do something, you probably shouldn’t do it, and if everyone says you should do something, you should also probably not do it; but if half the people you talk to tell you to do it and half say you’re crazy, then you should definitely go ahead.”
Is temporary disagreement with a substantial part of colleagues necessary in scientific innovation? How can this be distinguished from lack of realistic self-criticism? How can this type of science be funded, since receiving a grant usually requires the unanimous support of a committee?
3) Scientific Authorities, prevailing opinions and innovation: In my autobiography there are repeatedly cases in which a young scientist asks for advice from an established scientist, but often the young person rejects the advice. Is this useful or not? From the statements of several scientists, we have to decide that it is usually useful. However, much depends on circumstances.
This problem is especially serious in the context of awarding grants for research, which is based on the consensus of the members of the grant committee. However, despite this problem the awarding of grants can still proceed successfully because the various members of the committee can influence each other during discussions. In addition, there are sources of grants that are not subject to these constraints, for instance, grants supported by various foundations.
A major problem for a young researcher today is the competition for grants. There are too many applicants for too few grants. I would say that in my earlier days it was much easier to get support for research. In that respect we were fortunate.
I hope this is useful.
- Dulbecco R. “Scienza, vita e avventura” (Science, life and adventure) Sperling & Kupfer, 1989.
- Dulbecco R. A turning point in cancer research: sequencing the human genome. Science. 1986 Mar 7; 231(4742):1055-6.
- Hunter T. Renato Dulbecco: A Renaissance Scientist. Cell. 2012 Mar 30;149(1):9-10.
- Segre’ G. “Faust in Copenhagen” Viking, 2007