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History and Science

Analysis of Sources

            This Analysis is based on a document containing historical Sources; some of these Sources are based on original interviews or on published text not translated in English until now.

            Scientific collaboration and discussion norms depend in part on the types of problems encountered. As an example, we illustrate in another section the idea-sharing norms developed by scientists working in particle physics, which are very different from those currently used in biology.

            A 2009 Interview with Renato Dulbecco (Nobel Medicine, 1975), however, describes a time when biologists were also communicating more openly (Sources, 1). He commented about a paragraph from his autobiography, where, in 1989, he said: “What a difference between the time of Luria and Delbrück and now! I had learned that science is open, that there are no secrets. [...] Now the world of science is made of sealed compartments, even within the same laboratory sometimes you would not know what the others are doing”. 

            After training with Giuseppe Levi in Turin, Italy, Dulbecco joined the lab of Salvador Luria (Nobel Medicine, 1969) at Indiana University in 1947 and moved to Caltech to work with Max Delbrück (Nobel Medicine, 1969) in 1949. He stayed at Caltech until 1962. See Sources, 2, for a longer translation of this part of the Dulbecco autobiography. In the longer quotation he attributes the decrease in discussions of plans and ideas in biology to the rise of commercial interests.

            Alice Huang, a former President of AAAS, worked with Dulbecco at the Salk Institute in the late 60s. She kindly shared her memories and commented on the issues raised by Dulbecco in his Interview and in the autobiography (Sources, 3). In her interview she confirmed the view of Dulbecco, mentioning how when she worked at the Salk postdocs and senior scientists "were all able to talk to each other very freely". She provided examples showing that not only commercial interests but also increased academic competition played a role in changes in the discussion habits of the biomedical community that were more evident from the early 70s. She also mentioned that Paul Berg (Nobel Chemistry, 1980), another collaborator of Dulbecco, made similar statements, and indeed in a published interview Berg lamented the loss of "the spirit of openness and collaboration that dominated the early years of molecular biology" (Sources, 4). Sidney Brenner (Nobel Medicine, 2002) also wrote in 2001 that "There is a lot of concealment nowadays. A lot of work is kept secret and there’s no free exchange in the sense that people don’t tell you what they’re doing if they think you’ll get there first. So competition does make for a kind of struggle that has its bad effects.” (Sources, 5).

            Dulbecco mentioned Giuseppe Levi, Salvador Luria and Max Delbrück as mentors that influenced him and many other scientists (Sources, 8,9). Luria and Delbrück were well-known leaders of a group of scientists that were at the origin of molecular biology. Giuseppe Levi was the teacher and mentor of three Medicine Nobel Prize winners that trained with him in Turin, Italy: Renato Dulbecco, Salvador Luria and Rita Levi-Montalcini (Sources, 10-11). They obtained the Prize in different years and for different research topics, not related to their work with Levi. It is remarkable to note that there has been only one other scientist trained at Italian University that has obtained the Nobel Prize in Medicine, in 1906. Dulbecco was also recognized as scientific leader. We found several descriptions of Giuseppe Levi (Sources, 10-13) and Max Delbrück (Sources, 14-22) which show that they had common traits, also shared by Dulbecco (Source, 3). Delbrück modeled his leadership style on that of his mentor, Niels Bohr, part of the group that developed quantum mechanics, one of the major achievements of physics and of science on general (Sources, 16).

            These senior figures were described as moral leaders, in the sense that they provided an example by putting science before personal advantage; they were very critical, in a constructive way; they were ready to change their mind when shown new evidence and happy to recognize the achievements of those that did not follow their suggestions; they provided recognition in an impartial way. They promoted openness and encouraged social interactions. Many contemporaries state that these leaders could often be wrong, but the discussions were always helpful, and they allowed their trainees to follow their own ideas and supported them. The progressive gain of independence that this facilitated is described by both Dulbecco and Levi-Montalcini (Sources, 15 and 12). It has been noted that their presence created trust and promoted the open exchange of ideas, by providing fair recognition for intellectual contributions (Sources, 17). It is possible that broader social factors, including the well-known opposition to fascism and nazism of Levi, Delbrück, Luria, Dulbecco and other scientific figures, contributed to the development of a leadership style that was the opposite of that of the political dictators. We spoke with Carlo Ginzburg, one of the most famous living historians and also the grandson of Giuseppe Levi. He pointed out that examples of his grandfather's readiness to change his mind when presented with new evidence were seen by younger scientists as demonstrating the sincerity of his commitment to science.

            The temporary counterbalance provided by moral leaders could not withstand the centrifugal forces originating from the growing size of biomedical research community and by increased competition between academic groups and companies for limited resources. Alice Huang describes vividly this period of inevitable transition (Sources, 3). Having more biomedical scientists is a positive and necessary development. There are certainly fundamental problems that are addressed more efficiently by competing academic scientists and applied problems that are more suitable for biotech and pharma companies. There are, however, also recent challenges that require a concerted effort of the biomedical community, and in these cases moral leaders might again emerge and play an important role.

            Paul Nurse (Nobel Medicine, 2001) wrote recently (Sources, 6) that many biologists feel that they must present just data in talks and publications. He states that "Researchers seem reluctant to come to biological conclusions or present new ideas. [...] It is as if speculation about what the data might mean and the discussion of ideas are not quite ‘proper’." Understanding the historical origins, from competitive concerns, of these norms might help to encourage the open discussion of ideas for broader problems where secrecy does not provide an individual advantage (an example is the survey on AI). On the contrary, as shown by research presented in another section of this website, there are very large funds, many times the NIH budget, that are not spent by philanthropists because of the lack of the high impact projects they are looking for.  These types of projects might originate from open discussions and the resulting large influx of capital into biomedical research would benefit all, even those that want to focus only on smaller projects, by increasing the total pool of available resources. The response of the biomedical community to the COVID-19 pandemics also shows that biologists can adopt more collaborative styles when faced with a major challenge, as described by Alessandro Sette.

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