Bruce Alberts on NAS Committee Report
  Bruce Alberts     Biography    
Recorded: 22 Aug 2008

The committee just was from fall of 1987 to the spring of…..is that right? No, it was from the beginning of 1987 until the spring…it was like 14 months. The spring of 1988. But I got the call late in 1986. So, you know, it was a very short report compared to most Academy reports. But it was very concise, very well written. And we made one major mistake. We didn’t have anybody on the committee who knew anything about intellectual property. And we were told by somebody who came in that it was not possible to patent DNA, but you could copyright DNA. And so we made a strong argument not to copyright DNA, but we didn’t ….we might have been able to prevent what ended up being a terrible mess by having a strong position on patenting.

Narrator: So you did not participate against patenting.

Well we didn’t think it was possible, so we didn’t talk about it. So it wasn’t an issue. We were incorrectly informed.

Narrator: So, looking back, what do you think can it be possible to patent genes? Well I’m a strong advocate for only patenting things where you’ve made a major contribution. Finding a stretch of DNA and you sequencing and guessing what it might do, and getting a patent, is not a useful patent. And the Academy has made subsequent reports on this issue. And I think the Patent Office made a big mistake in the beginning; they’re moving away, or have moved away from that. But, we’ve made a lot of lawyers rich and complicated discovery processes.

So I was against this, I mean in fact is when our report came out David Baltimore came out strongly against our report. And actually published some speech I guess somewhere that was widely quoted saying this would ruin biology. I mean the argument against it was, it would, it was basically the argument I used for small science - that all the creativity comes from independent ideas of people bouncing off each other, not predictable. And this big machine-like science would turn biology into a factory kind of production. But of course in the end what it did even I mean David Botstein completely changed his mind. I mean, David Baltimore completely changed his mind. David Botstein had changed his mind during the committee meetings because it really facilitated a lot of really more effective individual research. Unfortunately it has taken, this genomic success, has been taken as an example of what we should do in every field. So we have proteomics, metabolomics, it’s all a way of getting money for special interest groups. And much of it doesn’t match my idea of what would be productive.

Bruce Alberts, currently Editor-in-chief of Science, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysic at the University of California and United States Science Envoy. He received A.B. (1960) in Biochemical Science from Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Ph.D. (1965) from Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1966 he joined Department of Chemistry at the Princeton University and after 10 years he became professor and vice chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysic at the UCSF.

Alberts work is best known for his work on the protein complexes that allow chromosomes to be replicated. He is one of the authors of The Molecular Biology of the Cell, a major textbook in the field. He served two-six years terms as a president of National Academy of Science (1993-2005). During his administration at NAS, he was involved in developing the landmark of National Science Education standards.

Among many honors and awards (16 honorary degrees), he is Co-chair of the InterAcademy Council and a trustee of Gordon and Betty Moore Fundation.

More Information: Wikipedia, UCSF