Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Words of Wisdom From John Gurdon

Developmental biologist John Gurdon was the first to clone a normal adult organism through somatic cell nuclear transfer. I randomly came across an entertaining Q & A with Gurdon in Current Biology. Here's some of the real gems:

What do you think about scientific publishing? Surely what we all want is the efficient handling of submitted papers, and there are some journals and editors that excel in this respect. I regret that many major journals in biology are owned by commercial companies: scientists do the work, referee the papers and buy the journals – but the profits go to non-scientific organizations. A good counter example is the Company of Biologists, which owns three highly regarded journals, and all of the profits go back into science as contributions to scientific societies, meetings, student travel, and so on.

On Teaching: "I have always found teaching painful, but have no doubt that, in moderation, it can be very beneficial, even for those in full-time research appointments."

Advice to Scientists:
"Luckily I was rejected for nearly all administrative roles for which my name was put forward. If someone wants to make a rewarding career in which they have contributed something truly innovative that wouldn't have happened without them, my suggestion is to keep active at the bench. It's much more satisfying to do something innovative yourself, than be told about it by a colleague."

What do you regard as the greatest hindrances for science? Home Office rules and laboratory inspectors. I believe that, generally speaking, these have no interest whatever in the perceived hazard (risk), which is usually non-existent. For example, laboratory amounts of radioactivity are far below any clinically effective level (patients are given 1010 dpm of I131 for hyperthyroidism). The number of air changes per day in a mouse room, or the humidity of the air in a frog room housing completely aquatic Xenopus, are wholly unrelated to the natural conditions in which animals live. There is not the slightest possibility that anyone could obtain a laboratory licence to go fishing; and what about garden centres that sell children animals that will almost always die of starvation or neglect a few days later? Filling out forms and keeping records doesn't do any good for animal welfare or human health.

How did you come to have a career in science? Not easily. After one term of biology at school, the teacher wrote “For Gurdon to continue in biology would be a complete waste of time both for him and for those who would have to teach him”.


Anonymous Coward said...

But if everyone did like him, the system would be broken... unless we separate the roles of administrator, teacher, researcher, grant seeker etc...

Bayman said...

But I think he's right that when you have full-time administrators, you get administration for the sake of administration rather than what is necessary to keep the science's like a self-propagating virus.

I think that's where we are now, with 99% of the administration and paperwork we have being totally useless.

But you're right, the way to avoid that is for each scientist to take some responsibility for the minimal necessary "administrative" tasks, if there is such a thing, instead of passing the task off to people to do it full time.

Bayman said...

I guess more important is acknowledging that although administrative practices and rules might be to some extent necessary evils, they are very serious impediment to doing good science. They eat up your time and place restrictions and what you do, say and think about. Good science and innovation obviously requires the opposite - thought without limits and a focus on important facts rather than trivialities.

If we acknowledge this, we can at least work to minimize the attention we dedicate to administrative nonsense and following frivolous rules, to free more time for important things. Likewise, those in more administrative roles can direct their efforts toward sheltering the people doing the science from these bureaucratic impediments.