Sir John Kendrew on ICSU Activities and the Importance of Pure Science

"Most fortunately, Kendrew made a favorable impression on Luria: like Kalckar, he was civilized and in addition supported the Labor Party." That is how James Watson introduces us to John Kendrew, toward the beginning of The Double Helix. Later in his highly individualistic memoir, Watson recounts how he accepted what looked like "an open invitation to tuberculosis" when he arrived in England in 1951. After having difficulty finding digs in Cambridge, he recalls how "John and Elizabeth Kendrew re

By | April 6, 1987

"Most fortunately, Kendrew made a favorable impression on Luria: like Kalckar, he was civilized and in addition supported the Labor Party."

That is how James Watson introduces us to John Kendrew, toward the beginning of The Double Helix. Later in his highly individualistic memoir, Watson recounts how he accepted what looked like "an open invitation to tuberculosis" when he arrived in England in 1951. After having difficulty finding digs in Cambridge, he recalls how "John and Elizabeth Kendrew rescued me with the offer, at almost no rent, of a tiny room in their house in Tennis Court Road. It was unbelievably damp and heated only by an aged electric heater." In due course, the debt was more than repaid: "I gave John and Elizabeth Kendrew the scoop about DNA when I joined them for breakfast on Monday morning. Elizabeth appeared delighted that success was almost within our grasp, while John took the news more calmly."

One of the principal architects of 20th century bioscience, John Kendrew shared the 1962 Nobel prize for chemistry with Max Perutz for their pioneering and painstaking work on the structures of hemoglobin and myoglobin. In that annus mirabiis for British science, Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins also received the physiology and medicine prize for their discovery of the DNA double helix. All five were at the center of the extraordinary effiorescence of talent which, through the application of Xray diffraction techniques to the study of macromolecules, spawned the modern discipline of molecular biology. Housed originally in a dingy hut outside the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, the team was later accommodated in the more lavish Laboratory of Molecular Biology, which continues to be at the forefront of biomedical research.

Knighted in 1974, Sir John has always been a committed internationalist in science. He once estimated that he passed through London airport about every 10 days, and he was the prime mover behind the establishment in Heidelberg, West Germany, of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, which he served as director general from 1975 to 1982. "I feel that national boundaries in general are bad, and that anything which can break them down is good. International science is one method," he announced while serving as secretary-general of the European Molecular Biology Organization. Kendrew is now president of the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), the only truly global organization devoted to the advancement of science. He is also president of St. John's College, Oxford. He was interviewed there March 13 by Bernard Dixon, European editor of The Scientist.

Q: ICSU originated as an umbrella organization to bring together bodies such as the International Astronomical Union and the Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, but it now embraces 20 of these disciplinary unions as well as 66 national members and has grown in importance accordingly. What exactly is its role today?

KENDREW: Our principal objective, as a nongovernmental organization, is to encourage international scientific activity for the benefit of mankind. Our best known work is probably to initiate and coordinate interdisciplinary activities such as the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957-58 and the International Biological Program (IBP) from 1964 to '74. More recently our Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment produced a major report on Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War (ENUWAR), which highlighted the catastrophic effects of a nuclear war for humanity and indeed for the biosphere. In addition to activities of this sort, we are increasingly active in trying to further scientific progress in the developing countries.

ICSU Resources

Q: ICSU's General Assembly in Berne last September decided to launch an International Geosphere-Biosphere Program, ranging over natural and manmade environmental changes during the next century. Does ICSU really have the resources to finance such a massive undertaking?

KENDREW: In one sense, no. The full-time staff of ICSU and our constituent bodies is only about 30 people. And our total annual budget is around $8 million, about half of it coming from our national members. That compares with UNESCO's staff of thousands and a budget 25 times greater than ours. What we are doing with the global change program, therefore, as with our other programs, is to persuade national bodies concerned with various aspects of the subject to gear their own research projects to mesh in with this international effort. After all, every country in the world must be interested in improving the reliability of forecasts about global changes that might lead to a deterioration in the Earth as an environment for human and other life.

Q: But isn't it extremely difficult at the moment, with science budgets under pressure everywhere, to ask for resources to be plowed into this sort of work?

KENDREW: I'm much less worried about this particular program than about a few others. The whole idea has been well received by politicians in several countries. We in Britain, for example, are not exactly given to being madly enthusiastic about international collaborative projects. Yet the Royal Society has already supported the plan and quite spontaneously produced a paper discussing the sorts of specific projects that could be set up. The government of Sweden has very generously provided free accommodation at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, as well as paying the salary of the program's director, Thomas Roswall, and meeting other costs. A committee, chaired by Jim McCarthy, has already been formed to plan the work and I am confident that this will be at least as successful and productive a program as the IGY and IBP in the past.

Q: Would it be fair to say that ICSU's good works do not always attract the political and public attention they deserve? The ENUWAR report, for example, endorsed the possibility of a "nuclear winter" and talked of "a tragedy of unprecedented dimension" for mankind, and yet seemed to have less impact than other documents published on the same subject.

KENDREW: Well, the report continues to be cited and indeed to be criticized, and it did reach a high level politically in some countries. For example, we understand that a copy passed across Mr. Gorbachev's desk, which is reassuring, though I don't suppose the same thing happened in the United States or Great Britain. But as a general comment you are right; we do have a problem of visibility. ICSU is the only body representing world science, yet the average scientist (certainly those outside the earth sciences, where we are better known) has never heard of us. I sometimes get irritated too when I read articles in popular science magazines which describe ICSU programs without ever mentioning ICSU itself.

It was for these reasons that we held our Ringberg Conference in October 1985. That was an occasion of self-examination which has already led to initiatives such as the creation of a committee charged with improving our relations with the media, the public and the scientists. The committee held its first meeting recently, and we have also appointed a new information officer who will work both for headquarters in Paris and for ICSU Press in Miami. We are also contemplating the launch of a new journal, probably to be called Science International. Our job is not just to communicate with scientists but with the politicians and the public too. One of the issues on which we do deal with politicians is the right of scientists to join in international scientific activities irrespective of race, religion, political philosophy, ethnic origin, citizenship, sex or language.

Q: Can you give some recent examples?

KENDREW: We often have to intervene when there are political constraints on people attending scientific meetings. Our Committee on Free Circulation of Scientists advises the various unions within ICSU as to whether there are likely to be political difficulties with visas when a conference is being planned in a particular country. We are often able to overcome those problems, but in extreme cases the eventual advice is that the meeting should be moved elsewhere. I cannot give specific details about recent cases without divulging information that could compromise similar negotiations in future, but our record is certainly rather good. Unfortunately, we have been rather less successful in dealing with questions of human rights.

Q: There have been calls in Australia recently for an international consensus concerning the ethics of research on the human embryo. There seems to be a need for a set of guidelines as to what is and is not acceptable, which could have political weight in countries where embryo experimentation is highly contentious socially. Is this an area where ICSU could be influential?

KENDREW: We are thinking of establishing a committee on ethical problems of science. This would identify topics of present and future concern arising out of ongoing research, and then bring together groups of experts to study those topics and write reports. In a sense, the ENUWAR study was that sort of exercise on a large scale, and we might well take on subjects such as human embryo research and animal experimentation in future. One of the questions we need to resolve before going ahead is how far we should move into medicine, where international organizations already exist and where we have no wish to compete or duplicate what others are doing.

Q: Several national bodies not previously noted for political lobbying have expressed anxiety recently about worsening funding for science. Given that virtually all countries are now facing similar difficulties, is ICSU likely to add its global voice to those protests?

KENDREW: In one area, certainly. ICSU has long been closely associated with UNESCO, and we are very concerned about the reduction in support for scientific work in developing countries that has resulted from U.S. and U.K. withdrawal from UNESCO. At just the time when the need is greatest and when we could spend more money in the Third World to good effect, UNESCO has had to cut our annual subvention by about 30 percent. In that sense, we are very worried indeed about resources for science. In addition to research programs directly concerned with development, we are always looking, through our Committee on Science and Technology in Developing Countries, for ways of helping to promote the interests of Third World science. For example, we decided recently that half of the royalties accruing from ICSU Press publications should go to make these publications available for scientists in developing countries.

UNESCO Pullout

Q: Did you feel there was any justification for U.S. and U.K. withdrawal from UNESCO?

KENDREW: We deplore the fact that the two countries left. Fortunately, the disaster has not been total because both the U.S. and the U.K. are now giving us some of the money which we received formerly through UNESCO and which is allowing specific programs to continue. For example, the International Union of Geological Sciences is getting substantial support from the U.S. for the International Geological Correlation Program. Likewise the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics is receiving money for its Natural Hazards Program. The U.K. government has replaced that proportion of its UNESCO contribution that formerly went to ICSU.

Q: No doubt you hope that the two countries will rejoin UNESCO in due course.

KENDREW: Indeed, and we are naturally very interested in who is to become the new director-general. We have just written to the chairman of the executive board of UNESCO, saying that ICSU very much hopes that the person appointed will be someone of distinguished intellectual qualifications—and, since the last director-general was an educator, we would like the next one to be a scientist. We believe that this is more important to the future of ICSU than the political considerations that lead to the actual choice. Of course, you may say this is whistling in the wind....

Q: Two years ago, you chaired a group looking at Britain's continued membership in the European Organization for Nuclear Re-search (CERN), and concluded that we should indeed remain part of that effort, but only if our contribution could be reduced. In your report you said that the organization and funding of U.K. science should be "rationalized," yet today Britain's future in CERN is once again in jeopardy because of continued difficulties with the science budget. What are your thoughts about this, and about the continued need for rationalization?

KENDREW: Speaking not for ICSU but as myself, I would deplore Britain pulling out of CERN, and therefore virtually opting out of the entire field of high-energy physics. I find the attitude of the present British government towards basic science very shortsighted indeed, not only because of the current reduction in funding, which is extremely serious, but also because of the administration's continual emphasis on applied research. Of course, we need more applied science, but not at the expense of pure science—in which this country has such a good record. One problem is that politicians think only in terms of the time scale of general elections, every three to five years, whereas fundamental science requires a far longer perspective. An additional problem with CERN is that the Treasury has never accepted responsibility for compensating the research councils for currency fluctuations that can suddenly increase by a million pounds or so our contribution to an international project of this sort.

Q: Do you believe that Britain requires a Minister for Science, as proposed in the recent report from the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology?

KENDREW: Yes. In my dealings with other countries—West Germany, for example—I find the existence of such a ministry very important and helpful to the scientific community. We need a voice in cabinet arguing the case for science, but also a structure in which responsibility is not diffused as at present in various ministries and departments that do not really have the required expertise.

Pure Science Research

Q: As one of the founders of molecular biology—originally pure science, now being harnessed for practical purposes through genetic engineering and biotechnology—what do you feel about the difficulty, within to-day's climate and with today's economic problems, of making the case for the disinterested pursuit of scientific knowledge?

KENDREW: We were lucky in Cambridge after the war. Even within the framework that existed for British science in the 1950s— broadly speaking the old Haldane principle, according to which scientists were funded and then left to their own devices—Max Perutz and I received very favorable support. We were given money to do research for about 10 years, without getting any results at all.

Q: You mean no practical applications?

KENDREW: No, I mean that we produced no results at all. Perutz worked even longer than I did—about two decades—without achieving anything. Credit for allowing us to operate in that way goes to a handful of people—Lawrence Bragg, Henry Dale, David Keilin and Harold Himsworth—who in various capacities backed what we were doing and gave us time. And remember that many pure scientists, including professional crystallographers, believed that our new approach to protein structures was a complete waste of time. Well, they were wrong.

Q: But no system, then or now, could afford to support many researchers working for decades without generating results, so what are the lessons of that episode?

KENDREW: They are not easy to draw. All I can say is that the system at that time allowed our work to proceed without us being asked continually to justify ourselves or provide tangible findings. And we were not the only beneficiaries, by any means. The system also allowed other avenues to be explored and to prosper in the fullness of time. For example, while Perutz and I were trying to fathom the structures of globular proteins, Bernard Lovell and Martin Ryle were creating an entirely new field, radio astronomy, which simply did not exist before.

Q: Is such freedom of inquiry now simply impossible to contemplate?

KENDREW: Well, it seems to be, because difficult economic times are forcing government to cut back on all activities that do not have an immediate economic payoff. But behind this question is the important matter of education. The public and politicians need to understand far more clearly than at present the importance of pursuing science for its own sake. We have not, as scientists, taken this argument seriously enough or been very good at putting the message across. I hope that some of the new ICSU activities which I have already mentioned will help to improve matters.

Q: Many departments and indeed some entire universities in Britain have surmounted recent financial difficulties by forging stronger links with industry. What are your views about the erosion of academic independence which can follow moves of that sort?

KENDREW: This is very unfortunate. We did, of course, need to strengthen relationships between the university sector and private industry. Each side has much to learn from the other, and there are important economic and practical benefits from such collaboration. But there are acute problems too when those links become so widespread that society no longer has the benefit of the independent critical expertise which universities have traditionally provided.

It seems to me that we may well have to move in future to a more diverse pattern of university funding. I was very interested to see that the vice chancellor of Cambridge University, Lord Adrian, said in his last annual speech that Cambridge may not survive into the next century unless it reduces its dependence on government support. Adrian, who is himself a scientist, seems to be arguing for a free enterprise university independent of government, like the University of Buckingham. That is one answer to our current difficulties, and there may well be others. Here in Oxford, we have just appointed a fund-raiser—something totally new. I think the whole future of academe is now in the melting pot. So too is the future of science itself. We live in a very interesting time, but not one during which one feels easy optimism.


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