Society owes a great debt to scientists some of whom have given us great insight into genetics. They have used their brilliant minds for our benefit, often dedicating long boring hours to research and committing their lives to investigation. What is it that motivates them to do this?
They might appear to be super human, but scientists are very like the rest of us. They have their own foibles and quirks like any other human beings.
In the first half of the 20th century the brightest scientists were attracted to working in the fields of physics and chemistry. During the two World Wars nearly all of them were recruited into the war effort and great advances in scientific research were made. However, after the Second World War many scientists felt disillusioned because their intellect, creativity and work had been used for destructive purposes. With the cessation of hostilities they found themselves without any job and having to rethink their future. Many of the brightest ones decided to leave physics and chemistry and concentrate their efforts in the fields of the life sciences.
Francis Crick was one such man who moved from the physical sciences into biology research. He described this transition as, "almost as if one had to be born again.’’ Crick’s desire to produce something positive after the war years leads him eventually to the discovery of the structure of DNA.
The double helix structure of the DNA and the sequencing the human genome might have been achieved earlier if it had not been for personality clashes, disagreements and rivalries which obstructed collaboration.Crick and James Watson agreed that having the opportunity to exchange ideas and receive feedback was essential in the path to the discovery of the DNA.
The way scientists function has a deep effect on the rate at which discoveries are made. Some scientists choose to work together in teams and share their effort; others work in competition while others are unwilling to even share their discoveries, motivated by achieving their own personal glory.
The great scientific achievement of discovering the structure of DNA was due to a large extent to the collaboration between Crick and Watson. They spent a lot of time talking about their ideas to each other. While they were chatting at Cambridge University, at Kings College London Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin were not cooperating.
Once the structure and the basic coding of the DNA were discovered, the work of decoding would start. John Sulston became the head of the British Human Genome Project investigation at Sanger Centre Cambridge. From the beginning the Institute established a policy of data sharing and encouraged collaboration. Sulston gathered many of the biologists working on the sequencing of the human genome in 1995 in Bermuda and managed to draw up what become known as the Bermuda Principles in which all the scientists agreed to collaborate with each other and that any discovery should be made freely available and in the public domain within 24 hours. Sulston passionately believed that any scientific advances should be for the good of humanity and was strongly opposed to the protection and exploitation of scientific research for commercial interests. Sulston’s motivation was purely altruistic.
Some scientists, however, displayed differing ideas that threatened the progress of the project. Many were keen to achieve the scientific recognition of making an important discovery whilst also wanting to accommodate the needs of their corporate partners and make money! Craig Venter, who worked independently in the USA, was one such person. He tried to patent sections of the DNA sequence for his own financial gain.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed on a statement of principle to ensure that discoveries from the human genome were used for the benefit of human kind. This really put Craig Venter’s nose out of joint.
Scientists are human beings too, and have a wide range of reasons for their motivations. Fortunately, some of the greatest scientists were not interested in making money. We should be grateful that we have scientists such as John Sulston and Tim Burners Lee who gave us the World Wide Web. Humanity owes a lot to these scientists.