David Baltimore

Science Policy for the 21st Century

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Professor David Baltimore
President, California Institute of Technology
Professor of Biology, California Institute of Technology

Nobel Prize, Physiology or Medicine 1975
Biography | Website

Dr. Baltimore is the president of the California Institute of Technology and he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1975 for his work in the molecular biology of cancer. David Baltimore (DB) joins Frank Ling (FL) to talk about national science policy, science education, and Caltech’s efforts to find a solution to the confusion that followed the presidential election in 2000. Below is a transcript of the interview:

FL: Dr. Baltimore, thanks for joining us today.

DB: Well, I’m glad to be with you.

FL: So first I just want to ask you, as leader of a leading research institute in America, where is science policy going these days?

DB: For one thing, there is actually a fair amount of money being put behind science today. There was a doubling of the NIH budget in the last 5 years which has made, I think, the NIH the largest single funding agency in the world. There is sentiment in Congress for supporting a doubling of the NSF (National Science Foundation) budget. There has been a healthy increase in funds for science at NASA. DOE is the sick bird in this lot, the Department of Energy, largely because the Republicans do not like the Department of Energy.

FL: And there has been all these scandals going on these days.

DB: And there have been some problems in the Department of Energy which has been making it harder to defend. So I think that’s the most difficult part of the situation. But there are lots of other issues in policy including the stem cell issue.

FL: So could you tell us the importance of supporting this research? What do we lose by not carrying it out now?

DB: Well as your listeners may be aware, when we talk about stem cells, we are actually talking about a complicated series of things, including adult stem cells which are largely cells devoted to replacing individual tissues like blood elements or liver or even the brain. And then there are pluripotent stem cells that are able to do everything. The Bush Administration, President Bush himself actually, in a sort of remarkable address now a couple years ago, says that he was willing to allow NIH to fund research on the existing stem cell lines. And there has been a big issue on how many there really are, how good they really are. Still, I think a little obscure. But then cloning came along. It became possible to reprogram stem cells with new nuclei. And to actually make tailor-made stem cell lines.

FL: So are we talking about adult stem cells or embryonic stem cells.

DB: These are embryonic stem cells. And this can be done by taking an existing stem cell line or an embryo or a one-celled embryo or egg and reprogramming it. And that has bothered people who think that this is similar to cloning of individuals. Actually, the first moves are similar to cloning — we have to recognize that — but the intent is totally different and what one does is totally different so that there is no chance to accidentally producing a functional embryo from these small number of cells that are allowed to grow. And since nothing is implanted into a uterus, it could not possibly grow into a human being. The argument has been made in Congress that it is slippery slope if you allow therapeutic, what people people are calling therapeutic cloning, then you will get reproductive cloning. I don’t see why this slippery slope exists at all because you have to implant it into a uterus and you have to do something quite different than simply keeping cells in a laboratory so I think we can allow the therapeutic uses of nuclear transplant technology, which we call cloning, without running the danger of actually having live human beings born. Now, the Raelians are claiming that they have done this and I’m extremely skeptical, I really don’t believe they’ve done it.

FL: There’s no proof yet.

DB: There’s no proof yet and they are acting exactly in the way as you would expect from somebody who is pulling the wool over the eyes of the public. I think they are looking for publicity and they are looking for a name for themselves. In fact, they are even trying to make money by trying to get people to sign up for their Clonaid company, but I don’t believe for a moment that they’ve done it.

FL: So now lets turn to something something real. Well, the Human Genome has been sequenced. What’s next?

DB: The sequencing of the human genome has had an enormous impact on biology. For the first time, we know the full parts list. We know all the genes that go into making a human being or a mouse or a plant. We are getting more genomes almost daily now, particularly with microorganisms and having those parts list and being able to look at them from a evolutionary point of view and look at them from a functional point of view is extremely exciting. When I look at the human genome and see that there are let’s say 30,000 genes — we’re still arguing over how many genes there are — to me that’s 30,000 questions. What does gene A do? What does gene B do? What does it do in different contexts? What’s its importance? We know the answer to that for a very small number of genes, the ones that made themselves evident many years ago. We understand hemoglobin for instance, quite well, how it carries oxygen and what its role is in the blood. We don’t know everything about it but we know a lot about it. But then there are things that just don’t look like anything under the sun. What are they? Why are they so important? Why are they being conserved? Anything that is conserved over time almost certainly has an important function. So, we need to find all those out and to do that is an enormous task. It will take all the funding of the National Institutes of Health and more. Not only that, it will take the skills of people who have been trained in biology and genetics but it will also take the skills of people who have been trained in physics, in chemistry, in computational science, in mathematics, and engineering. So biology today becomes the focus of a technological campus like Caltech.

FL: So one of the goals is to find possible treatments and cures for cancer. How soon is this possible?

DB: Well, we have cures for cancer today, not all of them by any means, and some of the most prevalent ones, we don’t have decent treatments for: lung cancer, breast cancer. But it gets better day by bay, and new drugs are made by the pharmaceutical industry, new understanding comes from basic research laboratories. Drugs that we never imagined before are being made against very specific proteins that actually cause the cancer, so we are going from having to make drugs that are sort of non-specific cell killers in hopes that they kill tumor cells before they kill normal cells, which is the classic way that things were done in cancer research to today having very focused drugs that work exactly on the proteins that we know are responsible for the cancer cells growing. You know, when is it all going to be over? When are we going to say cancer is cured? I’m not sure when that will happen, if that will happen because cancer is a very slippery disease and it involves a vast number of cells in the body and those cells are continually mutating. So although you develop new drugs, the cancer cells then develop new ways of resistance.

FL: And viruses and other germs mutate as well.

DB: Viruses of course mutate very rapidly because their number are enormous and the way they replicate leads to a lot of mutations, so things like HIV are very slippery. But then other viruses are not slippery at all. Polio is really very fixed in spite of all of its mutations which it is does suffer. The antibody response to it really quite precise and the same in all people and effective in all people and the virus has never figured out a way around it.

FL: After 9/11, there has been a greater emphasis on protecting ourselves from biological warfare. How well prepared do you think we are?

DB: We are very, very poorly prepared for biological warfare and it is really critically important that we become prepared to deal with that threat. It’s so easy to imagine somebody releasing a biological warfare agent that we have to have continuous surveillance. We saw that of course with the anthrax scare, which actually in the end involved a small number of people, but alerted us to the kind of danger that we might be in. Our response has been to do make a lot of smallpox vaccine. I think it was a good idea to make of them, but I’m not so sure it’s such a great idea going around immunizing them because this stuff is dangerous,

FL: Yeah, I think small number of people actually die from it.

DB: A small number of people die from it, but a lot get sick and serious rashes. Those of us who are as old as I am probably have enough resistance that they are not going to get terribly ill from the vaccine but a lot of people who have never seen it before are gonna have a serious reaction. You know, we put up with that years ago because we had to, but that’s why we eliminated small pox, we thought from the face of the Earth and we still don’t know who has it. We only are sure that the United States and the Soviet Union, and we know that the United States has it under very close control. But, we worry that the Iraqis have it, maybe there is evidence of it but that is certainly not made to the public.

FL: So if you had any recommendation to make to President Bush, what would you say right now?

DB: Well you know, I would say to President Bush that he ought to listen to the scientific community more closely. There are lot of very intelligent people. I was just reading a wonderful book called Tuxedo Park. It’s a book about the role that physicists played in World War II, particularly focusing on the radiation laboratory at MIT. Not on the Los Alamos, which is the story almost all of us know. And the physicists had to convince the military and the political forces that they could actually solve practical problems. Once they were let loose and given practical problems to solve, particularly in radar, they turned out to be fantastic. And I think that’s an example of the kind of contribution that scientists can make to our world today and the Bush Administration has been notable for being secretive for choosing people on political grounds rather than on grounds of scientific competence. for not forming panels of experts to consider important issues, for not bringing people together, So there is no unity, there is no sense of purpose in the scientific community to help deal with the terrorist issues, the biological warfare issues, the nuclear war issues that face us. So my advice would be to stop being so secretive, to stop being so defensive and to look for well-trained smart people who can help to deal with these major issues that face us. But I’m not sure anyone would listen to me if I said it.

FL: Okay, so I just want to turn to another topic here. I understand after the presidential election, Caltech and MIT were involved in a study to optimize the election process. What conclusions did they come up with and how would technology help to prevent this from happening again?

DB: Well, we came to some fairly obvious and not so obvious conclusions. The fairly obvious conclusion was that using punch cards was a terrible way of voting and we actually got evidence — that was actually existing evidence — that nobody had put together. It turns out that many states keep very good voting records for a long period of time so you can get all of that data, but there have never been much systematic study. So they studied and showed that that form of voting is notoriously open to problems. But you might think that the thing we might support is online voting, sort of email voting, and that wasn’t true at all. Where people had tried to use screens for voting, they also found a lot of problems and it’s not clear whether those problems were because the technology was rudimentary or because the human computer interface hadn’t been thought through carefully. But we cautioned about too rapidly going in that direction. We weren’t listened to particular well, largely I think because many states face with the fact that they were doing punch card or machine voting that was really out of date. The states said that if are gonna get new voting machines, we are going to get the latest technology. So a lot of states are moving, perhaps a little too rapidly into online voting. But it’s machine voting at voting places, rather than home-based like internet voting because that has real security problems, which again we pointed out which have not been solved.

FL: So what do you think about biometrics, like using fingerprints or retinal scans? Do you think that will play a big role in the future?

DB: I’m not sure, depends whether you can do that over the internet. But, the people who do credit card security feel that they have methods that could be used to provide the security. So, I don’t think it’s a hopeless, but it’s got to be done carefully and we are starting. A professor at Caltech has been involved with the military in helping them set up voting, and they are a very nice contained group of people who know their constituency very well, so it’s a good test case.

FL: I guess we are running a little bit out of time here, I just have one last question here and this is with regard to science education. It’s been mentioned often that the paradox in the US is that we get the most number of Nobel Prizes, yet there is a high level of science illiteracy. Do you think there is a problem here or how should we solve it if there is one?

DB: I think there is absolutely a problem that we don’t have a good enough education for the general public in science. We have very good education for professional science. And professional scientists come from all over the world to the United States to be educated because we are so good at it. But we haven’t found ways to keep our young people interested in science so the number of Americans going into science is constantly shrinking, science and engineering I might say. And the general public is faced with increasing number of issues that involve science and are not prepared to think about it. And you know, there is still probably lots more people reading their horoscopes than reading about science and thinking there is some meaning in astrology. I mean that’s sheer nonsense, but it’s a measure of how poor a job we’ve done in creating a culture in science.

FL: Well, Dr. Baltimore thanks for joining us today.

DB: My pleasure.

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