Home > Philosophy > 1997 After Postmodernism Conference > Rabinow (specific)
Who would have thought that industry, even a small corner of it in a cutting-edge field, located in the atypical San Francisco Bay Area, would be a haven in a heartless world? The contrast with the perpetual petty power plays, seemingly insatiable status lust, and insistent incivility of the academy could not have been more unexpected. No paradise to be sure, but nonetheless here was a racially and sexually diverse environment with a group of reflective people, who gave every impression of passionate devotion to their science, who seemed to take an interest in the ethical and social consequences of that science, even without and grants or congressional pressure to do so. Suspicious-appearances must be deceiving - I began my fieldwork in Alameda.
The following exchange forms part of a more extended set of interviews on a wide range of topics, especially the invention, standardization, and development of what is arguably the most important biotechnical achievement of the 1980s, the polymerase chain reaction. Tom White and I are writing a book on this relatively simple technique to amplify, rapidly and efficiently, specific strands of DNA, producing millions of copies in a number of hours. During our exchanges and through the course of interviewing other scientists at Cetus, it was striking that a number of the other senior scientists had been politically active in their youth. The following interview explores this topic with two of those scientists, Henry Erlich and David Gelfand.
Rabinow: Okay, we're going to do a rapid comparison of science in the industrial setting and the university setting. Let's start with Henry. Can you tell us about collegiality at Cetus? What kind of freedom did you have? What kind of freedom didn't you have? A decade after making the decision to enter industry, do you ever think about what your life would be like today if you had become a professor at Stanford?
Erlich: Well, I made this decision largely on the basis of personal interactions. I like and respected David a lot, I'd just met Tom, whom I liked and respected a lot. I had known Shing previously, so I thought this is a group of people that I really like. But those were the scientists. I didn't particularly have feelings about the management. After I made the commitment to come and I was finishing up my research at Stanford, it was a very difficult time for me because I really didn't know if I'd made the right decision. I remember having lots of sleepless nights. How had I ended up going into the profit-making commercial arena,, because I never imagined I would - and I was quite anxious. In fact, I didn't really know what Cetus was like, I didn't know what directions they were going. I just said, Well, I like these guys, this should be a fun place to work, so I said yes. Which was not a terrible considered process. At any rate, I was very anxious before I came and wondering what it meant about my future and my political involvement. But on the other hand, I also thought about the fact that it could conceivably be vary exciting to try to do biological research that led to practical, useful things. So that, of course, was n exciting process and one that one normally doesn't have a chance to work on at a university. Now things in academia have changed and some of the distinctions between university and biotech research no longer hold. I think the things that attracted me were the people, the individuals, and the idea that you might actually be able to do something useful, practical, and benefit human health.
Rabinow: Did you ever think of quitting? Did you have recurrent sleepless nights thinking, "Have I done the right thing?"
Erlich: I don't think it ever got to the point where I thought I'd made a horrible mistake and I would have to call up and say, Forget it. It never got to that point. But I do remember being very worried about what it meant from my political perspective. But actually, in the very beginning, even before I started work, I had that idea for doing something which is now called DNA HLA typing. I remember this exact moment. I was meeting with Ron Cape, and I thought, Well, if they think this idea is something I might be able to work on, well, gee, maybe this would be an okay place to work. I didn't think they'd go for it because it was a totally wild idea at the time.
Gelfand: We had talked and he said he was interested in gene structure. I said, "Well, okay, fine." I knew I wanted him as a colleague. And I said, "Well, if you are interested in gene structure, I don't know how we're going to be able to package that and sell it to Cape and Farley. But let's figure out how your interest in gene structure is relevant to human health, and we'll figure out a way to make a project."
Erlich: And that's really, I think the crux of how one can ever really establish a satisfying scientific life in a company. If you find a project that is of real fundamental passionate to you, and if it also has the possibility for having some real practical commercial outcomes, then you have the Kid of a company project that really satisfies a scientist. I think there are some people who do things that are very valuable for Cetus or Roche, but I wouldn't want to have that kind of career. I mean, I respect what they do, they're very good at it and so forth, but for me, personally, there would have to be some sort of overlap between what I thought was personally interesting to one as a scientist - an overlap between that and something that management thought might be potentially useful at some point. So I think I was lucky in that some of the things I worked on had that overlap.
White: .....The limit for scientists is that scientists' visions are limited socially. Never even conceive some issues. How the family is defined. People are thinking about how to distinguish hemoglobin S from hemoglobin A, not these other issues. They don't think how this will affect families.
Rabinow: Curiosity is a good thing?
White: It's getting the answer to your curiosity. The mouse pushing on the button to get more cocaine. There is something intensely satisfying about satisfying your curiosity. Scientists just want to know the answer to something. That's why David Gelfand is in the lab every Sunday. He just wants to know how the thing works.
Rabinow: How far down the ladder does this apply as a motivation?
White: There is a range of human variation. Those who are motivated by curiosity have the problem of stopping. They ruin social occasions.
Rabinow: I've written a paper called "The Curious Patient," which was inspired by Hans Blumberg's chapter on curiosity in The Legitimacy of the Modern age. Blumberg talks about curiosity as one of the great momentive forces of the Enlightenment. He shows how curiosity has been something that has been consistently under attack by Christianity and other authority structures. There were the German medical and scientific experiments and so many others which obviously crossed the line of acceptable research. Perhaps there are no self-limiting principles within science itself to tell you not to do a particular experiment. Since curiosity and modernity combine to drive endlessly toward producing something new, the problem is the relation between the drive and the newness combined with curiosity which has no internal principle on limitation. Perhaps these German scientists who worked on living patients were horrible human beings, but we now know that they were not all horrible scientists. This disjunction is troubling. The core of the distinguished German medical establishment went along with the Nazis. Curiosity has its thresholds. Perhaps it's ethics or religion which limits what one can and can not do - not science.
White: That boundary where curiosity goes over into something unethical could also be an element in some aspects of scientific problems. They are always ascribed to power and priority issues, but there is an element of curiosity affecting the ability to interpret your data. It's a theme we've encountered in the history of PCR; Mullis saw the band he wanted to see, it was reinforcing his curiosity about it. Others we falsify; their experiments could be simply ignoring the data that doesn't fit.
Rabinow: And there are always data that don't fit. There is rarely, if ever, a definitive experiment which totally settles the issue.
[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]