Charles Delisi on Competition in Science
  Charles Delisi     Biography    
Recorded: 08 Sep 2003

So there’s political competition and scientific competition. So, yes, there’s competition at all levels in science. That’s because there is overlap. There are overlaps in missions of agencies. And there was a little bit of overlap between health and environmental research, the Department of Energy and NIH and, of course, the defense department has some role to play in health research for soldiers. And NASA has a very small role to play. NSF certainly has a role to play in the fundamentals. So all these agencies have their own distinct missions, but they all interlock with one another and there’s, as in everything else, there’s room for synergism and cooperation. And since they’re all composed of human beings, there’s always going to be some competition.

And the human genome project, with respect to NIH and DOE, I had been an NIH intramural scientist for ten years. I thought it was important for NIH to be a part of it. Initially they didn’t want to, that is, they didn’t attend the Santa Fe [workshop] and it’s perfectly understandable why.

I didn’t feel that I was competing with anyone. Quite frankly, I didn’t feel I was competing with NIH. As far as I was concerned, I mean NIH involvement, I felt was going to be very important to the successful completion of this. And as I stated before, I think it would have been very, very difficult for DOE to pull this off by itself in the time period that it was done. Because there is too much competition within the department, with physicists competing for the same pool of money and that pool was going to be limited. So it was very, very important that NIH get involved in it. I did not feel in competition. What I did feel was that I wanted them not to be in the way, or anybody not to be in the way of getting this thing done. And I had concluded that if we didn’t do it, it wasn’t going to happen. It certainly wasn’t going to happen in the form that it happened; it wasn’t going to happen as easily.

So that I felt committed to, but that DOE had to own. No, I didn’t think DOE should own it because I didn’t think it was going to happen that way. And I welcomed—we tried from the beginning to get other agencies involved. But there is always some element—and certainly it’s the same way when you do science. Scientists love to, I love to collaborate. In fact, when I was NIH that was the big advantage to being in the extramural program, that you had a world leader in any shade of cell or molecular biology that you can name and we all spoke and collaborated with one another.

The genetics and genomics right now is actually working very well sociologically. The field has a lot of people in it, but it has a tremendous carrying capacity. That is, it’s a time in a sense similar to the way that physics was in the early part of the century. In the sense that the methods are there, now to make a lot of discoveries. So when I say that there is a large carrying capacity, I mean there’s room for a lot of people to work in the area and make a lot of discoveries. It’s not saturated. It’s not a field where everybody’s tripping over one another.

And that type of environment facilitates collaboration because it’s not clear there is even still enough people. In fact, I think, you know, one of the things that exasperates me about American policy is that there’s not nearly enough money being spent on science. I mean I think it’s a waste to spend money on wars. And what bothers me about it, and you can argue a hundred million dollars on a war is not a lot of money, for a hundred billion dollars in terms of the percentage of the national economy. But you ask yourself if some part of that comes from the scientific budget, what does that do to the nation? And I think that it’s not in the best interest of the nation. I think science could use incredibly large amounts of money. I think we could have cured all kinds of things by now that we didn’t because we didn’t have adequate funds because there is not enough money for training people. I think the capacity of science for human intelligence and creativity is enormous and that we haven’t even begun to tap it.

I think this country, by the way, does a much better job than almost any other country in the world in terms of our—for the simple reason that our graduate school system is just spectacular. I don’t say that as a former dean here, but it is, I’d say it no matter where I was. It’s unparalleled. I don’t think that there’s ever been a system like it in the history of the world. We have other problems in education, but our graduate education system is just spectacular. So we’re doing a relatively good job, but we’re doing in absolute terms, we’re not even tapping or even beginning to tap the potential that we have in science.

So I don’t think we’re at a time in history where competition—there’s always competition. But I think the balance right now is towards very positive productive interactions simply because I think we’ve laid the groundwork for a lot of discoveries to be made.

Charles DeLisi did pioneering work in theoretical and mathematical immunology. He received his Ph.D. in physics and did postdoctoral studies in the chemistry department at Yale University researching RNA structure. He became a theoretical physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and then moved to the National Institute of Health, where he worked on molecular and cell immunology for ten years.

DeLisi is currently director of the Biomolecular Systems Laboratory, Chair of the Bioinformatics Program, Metcalf Professor of Science and Engineering and Dean Emeritus of the College of Engineering at Boston University.

Charles DeLisi develops computational methods for high throughput genomic and proteomic analysis. His laboratory is helping to develop technologies for fingerprinting the complete molecular state of a cell. He is interested in finding computational methods for determining protein function and researches the structural basis of signal translation by membrane bound receptors, the structural basis of voltage gating, and the docking of peptide hormones and neurotransmitters at their sites of action.

In 1986, DeLisi and Watson met at a CSHL meeting and spoke about their interests in sequencing the human genome.