Australian Biography

Donald Metcalf - full interview transcript

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You've described some of the changes that have occurred in medical research in your lifetime. What about changes to the funding models? How have they changed?

Um, they have changed, of course, because research has become much more expensive, each scientist costs on average about the cost of a suburban house. And as the cost of suburban houses have gone up over the last 50 years, so the cost of each scientist has gone up. Um, where does that money come from? Well, when things were very cheap it was possible, just possible, for some private donor to give enough money to support a little bit of research, as was understood in those days. But even then, the government always paid a sizable fraction of the costs. And it's very interesting, over the 50 years I've been at the Hall Institute, the percent of money of our annual budget that the federal government pays hasn't changed, it's between 30 and 40 percent. So, our place costs 30 million dollars a year to run, let's say the government has given us 15 million, so every year when you wake up, January 1st, you've got to find the other 15 million. And that's a big headache, it means that all of us have to spend weeks, even months, writing grant applications so now we get some of our money from the United States, some will come from other special organisations, like World Health Organization or malaria funds, or in our case we get money from the local cancer society. Some of it you get from little old ladies in their wills. It's not the habit in Australia to leave sums of money for research as it is in the US. So there are no big donors, very rich people who will give you 20 million, 100 million, that's quite common in the US, not here. And despite that, about 10 percent of our money comes from invested gifts, so we invest all our gifts and use the income from them. So it's a little bit of everything. Now that hasn't changed all that much over 50 years, it's just more and more a desperation effort to find the money. It's ... it's tough, it's the one profession where you are paid a salary and then expected to go out and find the money to let you work for that salary. Imagine paying a lawyer a salary and then saying, ‘Well, you go and find some money to build a courthouse and to ...,’ you know, it's a very strange arrangement.

And your situation in having had tenure, for the whole of your life, wasn't uncommon, wasn't so uncommon back then. But is that the situation now for young people?

It was never common. To my knowledge, I'm the only person in the world that's ever had tenure for life as a research worker. You had tenure for your professional life as a professor, which is also not really true any more, but most research workers live on a cycle that might be annual or every three years or every five years. Nobody has a longer appointment ... even the director of our institute only has an appointment for five years. Now it can be renewed, but you don't know that for sure, and it's very tough if you are the second person in the world to discover something, that's bad luck. If you keep on being the second person in the world to discover things you will lose your grant money very quickly and equally quickly you'll lose your salary. It's a real gambler's life you lead. You're gambling that in the next few years I'm going to discover something that will make people say, ‘Okay that was good. We'll give you your salary again, here's some more money.’ That doesn't happen in academic life ... it used not to happen, it is tending to happen now, people are on contracts and presumably if they don't perform they can be not renewed.

And what are the advantages and disadvantages of those two systems, the tenured system and the contract system, in your opinion?

It's a matter of luck, isn't it? If you get somebody who's very good you are extremely happy to support them for life. Now, you could say, how often does that happen? Well it does happen. And if you get somebody who runs out of energy at the age of 35, but has a lifetime appointment, you're stuck. You're cooked, you've got a room full of dead people, dead wood. So you ... you're torn between both systems, saying, well there is some common sense in having a short-term appointment but it's no way to raise a family and have a living. And the other way is, it's great but are you sure you picked the right person? Now, there isn't any simple answer to that.

If you'd been in a situation where you had three-year reviews, say, would you have always been renewed, do you think?

I think I would have been in big trouble some cycles ‘round. There were some times you could get through very easily but others you'd be scratching and saying, ‘Well, we really did try hard and we discovered this and that.’ There was always something you discovered, but basically you weren't succeeding in what you were really trying to do. Now that's exaggerating a bit. If you went and visited our lab any time in the last 50 years there'd be things going on that were working and would be written up as papers. After all, I think I've written 650 plus scientific papers in 50 years. And if you work that out quickly in your head, that's about 13 papers a year. Which means you're writing one a month. Now you've got to do the work before you can write the paper. So, something must have been discovered — I mean you weren't publishing nothing. But you could then say, ‘Hey, hang on a minute, you claim that you're going to purify these, what's the answer, haven't you done it yet?’ So some things were dragging on and if it was a tough committee, as they are very tough nowadays, you would've ... could well've been given the boot. So my employers were pretty tolerant and it's a very unusual thing to do and it's a bit of a dangerous thing to do, if you're thinking now from the point of view of being an employer, you'd say, ‘Well, hang on a minute, we've only got one fellowship to give and this fellow's useless and I'm stuck with him.’ So, it's a gamble they run.

You said that you write lots of papers. How many books have you written in the course of your life?

Nine, I think. Nine.

And is there an art to grant application writing?

Oh yes. It ... it's not an art, it's a skill and our institute is very expert at writing grants, so the ones who write successful grants have to teach the others how to set it out, what things to say. I mean, you can make silly mistakes like have 20 good ideas and put them down and immediately the committee will say, ‘This guy is all over the place, he hasn't got the time to do all these 20.’ Out. Whereas if he'd been better advised to spend it on describing one that's obviously do-able and it's going to get an answer, he'll probably be successful. So there is a real skill in writing the papers and they're written in a different way for different organisations. And we have an organisation, if you like, within the institute that teaches and checks on how each one of those is written so our track record in winning grants is good and others in the university will say, ‘That's not fair, these people are ... not cheating but they are getting an unfair advantage.’ But it's a matter of getting yourself organised. It shouldn't happen, it's just a waste, an enormous waste of mental energy and everyone's time, wasting time sitting on the committee in judgement on your fellows, you're wasting more time writing the things and, one way or another, you seem to end up getting money to work with, it's just how much time you've wasted getting it.

In giving you tenure, they did take a risk but they got someone who just hasn't stopped working ever since and has kept motivated, and it seems to me that that motivation to keep going is the key to your ultimate success with the things you were pursuing. What keeps you motivated?

Persistence, isn't that the word you're after? Um, it's a bit of everything, it's ... it's an absolute determination to figure some things out, to find out how they work and this stems, if you like, from having such a bad memory as a medical student and if I could figure out how the system was working, how the heart worked and what regulated the heartrate, I didn't have to memorise it. So I always would prefer to figure something out, I think that's basically behind it. So you're presented with a problem, even today, we know so little about the systems that we're working with that there's no time to spare not hopping in with the techniques you've got and trying to answer it. What do you call that? Is it curiosity? Is it sort of greed that you want to discover yet more things? A bit of both I suppose and, as the cream on the cake, the thought that you can eventually use this one day, that's what keeps you going. Daily, tomorrow morning when I go to work, what will keep me going is that I hope that what I see tomorrow is exactly the same as I saw yesterday, meaning: that it's repeatable, that's the thing you live in terror of, that the things you find just can't be repeated. Um, everything keeps you going, your colleagues keep you going. It's great working in a group because somebody is always running hot and doing something successful when most of us are just having an ordinary day and repeating something or getting it wrong and can't figure out what's gone wrong. But as long as somebody is ... has got success, everyone's happy. That's the way it goes.

What about the glittering prizes? Because there have been a few of those, haven't there? Do they keep going, and what ones haven't you won?

Um, a lot. Um, does it keep you going? The answer is, I don't think you set out at the beginning of a year saying, I'm going to win a prize this year. No, you don't say that. When you do win a prize, you're embarrassed because you know that what's being honoured is a project and the project is the work of all the people, so they have to pick per chance one person. So that's slightly embarrassing. Um, is it fun winning it? Does the self-esteem go up? Not usually because it's a nervous-making occasion when you're being given it by Hilary Clinton or somebody so you are a little tense in New York getting it. It's a mixture of everything. So, would you be peeved if you never had won a prize, ever? I suppose you would be. Are you looking forward to the next one? I suppose you are, you'd be lying if you didn't, and yet common sense says, ‘No you can't, there's nothing more that you're likely to win, just forget it, just get on with your work.’

Why has the Nobel got so much prestige, do you think?

It's ... it's interesting, isn't it? It's not ... well, I don't think it is the most valuable, it ... it was for a long while, a most valuable prize, so that was part of it, then there's the glitterati associated with going to Stockholm and having the king give it to you in palatial surroundings. All of that. Um, but certain prizes get a ... get a reputation that isn't really deserved from the monetary side of it. The top American prize, the Lasker Prize, only I think gives you 25,000 dollars, now that by today's standards is nothing. General Motors prizes are 300,000 dollars but the Lasker Prize will be announced on the front page of the New York Times and the General Motors one, to their fury, will receive no mention in any US newspaper and they say, ‘How can this be?’ They scratch their heads. I've been on the selection committee and I know that it drives them crazy. We want some publicity for this prize. How does it happen? It's probably an accident of timing; when Lasker first started, there weren't any other prizes around. It was easy and it happened. Lasker, I think, was a newspaper man and probably had an end to getting publicity for his prize. But then it's sort of competition between scientists, ‘Oh he got the Lasker Prize.’ So you're making the story up yourself, in creating the ... the special aura of it. It's ... there's a lot of that in science, in that creating — why do people write articles for Nature or Science? They themselves have said, ‘We're going to regard Nature as the best scientific journal. And we will die trying to get our paper published there.’ Now that's self-inflicted torture, you ... you could publish it anywhere. Publish it in the daily newspaper would be just as effective but so, scientists build things that they then strive to ... to achieve.

Of the prizes that you've received, which one do you value most?

The ones that I value are some odd ones where they're chosen by committees that were quite formidable in their composition. There's a prize from Columbia University where they're extremely serious in how they went through all the possible candidates and people were assigned to read every one of their publications and critically examine them and then committees would get together and out of that, to be picked, you know you've gone through a lot of hoops by serious fellow scientists. So you think, that's good. Ah, there's a similar prize from the US National Academy of Sciences, which you know, if you win that, that's pretty substantial. Or a similar prize from the Royal Society. And none of those are particularly valuable in terms of prize money, mightn't have any prize money, but it's because your peers have ... serious peers who are successful in their professions, have picked you. I think they're the ones that give you the most satisfaction.

So the value that your peers place on you is important to you?

Oh yeah. That's true in science. If you lose your reputation amongst your peers, that's the end of you. You've got to be regarded as telling the truth, of being interesting, coming up with novel ideas, and producing stuff that's correct and repeatable and that's it. You discovered it, it's probably right. Within the limits of what you're doing, so the outside public has no notion of whether you're an idiot or a great scientist, they have to believe what's told to them; people who practice medicine have no idea whether you're particularly good or not. The only people who know whether you're good or not are your colleagues and competitors. And only in the field that they're talking about, so I know nothing about who's a good physicist or a mathematician or a ... who works on the kidney, I know absolutely nothing about them. But if you want to talk about blood diseases, I can tell you who are the people who did what and are the best at their job. So it's very hard when ... to get back to your question about the Nobel Prize, I would hate to be on that committee, sitting down trying to pick a prize that covers the whole of medicine and physiology. Right? It's worse than picking the Melbourne Cup winner and, you know, there are people who are superb but I suspect that they try to rotate around the different fields, so that they're all covered every 10 years or so. And if you're not in the right field at the right time, you ... they have no choice but to just pass you over, I think. I don't know.

You said that your competitors are often on the ... on the review, on the panels that are making these decisions ...

You hope, you hope they are, because at least they know what they're talking about.

And does that ever come in the way of their judgement — do they ever think, this guy's got a different view from me, I'll knock him out?

You would think on principle it would, or more commonly, does one of your competitors go through your manuscript for publication and decide it's no good? And there are people you could ask that question to and are convinced they know it's happened, and they know who it was that torpedoed them. And they will forever after hold that as a grudge and probably wrongly. Um, I haven't seen much sign of it, inevitably people will tend to favour choosing people for positions or prizes or whatever in a field that they know something about. And it's a sort of snowballing effect, there are an awful lot of immunologists who are successful, why? Because there are an awful lot of immunologists. The chances are there are immunologists on every selection committee and it goes on. Is that malignant? No, it just happens that’s all you know about. And ...

How much time is taken up with peer reviewing, I mean, is this a big responsibility?

It ... it is and it takes somewhere between one and two months every year out of a year's work. Now if you take out a month for holidays, if you have holidays, a third of the ... a quarter of the year is gone on what's useless work. Now, you could say, it's not useless to peer review, it is forcing you to think what you're doing and be careful appraising it and presenting it and planning it. And that's lifting up the level of research, so it's not wasted; it's waste for you, but it's not waste for science in general. It's tough but it's getting worse and worse and the bureaucrats are demanding more and more accountability and it's just getting out of control.

Do you think scientists and academics are paid enough?

No. Not when you see what the heads of banks are paid who you know, from meeting, are no brighter than you are, probably less bright and getting paid 10 times as much. Or the head of Telstra. Come on.

A lot more than 10 times in some instances.

Ah, so that's just ridiculous. Are scientists paid enough compared to general practitioners or specialists in medicine? Much more direct comparison. The answer is, probably not quite enough but not disastrously less. And remember that they've got probably superannuation which a surgeon doesn't have and ... I don't notice much difference. I'm sure the most popular plastic surgeon in Sydney or Melbourne earns a lot more than the best scientist, but then it's not something that's very important.

What's your view of the big changes that have occurred in tertiary education in the period that you've been working?

My view is I know nothing about it. I have an unpopular attitude to training PhD students. A lot of people sign on and do PhD degrees in order to get on in their profession. So if you're a medical graduate and you do a PhD it's because you want to get into an academic medical department and rumour has it that you can't get appointed unless you've got a PhD. They don't care tuppence about science and making discoveries and applying it. They want to get their PhD and get the hell out of it. Now, I get furious when I find that we've taken in people with that attitude. Because to me, that's training milkcart horses and we're supposed to be training racehorses. And it's the job of the university to teach that sort of PhD student. It's part of their professional training. So, has that changed in the last 50 years? A little bit, I mean, this is sort of embedded in the ... in the mystique of rising in your profession, that you've got to have a PhD. And some people believe that. Other than that, what's happening in the university is a closed book to me, I mean, I'm astonished that medical classes are so small now. That wasn't the way I grew up. I think they must be spoilt rotten. Are they any better doctors than we turned out? I suspect not. But they ... life was pretty tough in the university, lots of departments are vanishing that should still be there. I mean, you try and find a history department or an English department, French, German, they're all going. And if you're in a medical school and you're trying to do research and teach it is dreadfully hard. Dreadfully. So, in one sense life hasn't changed, in another it's ... it's getting a lot tougher, for everyone.

You were assistant director at the institute, under Gus Nossal, did you ever want to be director?

No.

Why not?

I think the director's job is like the CEO of an industry, it's ... it's a public relations position, you've got to be familiar to and chat up politicians, incessantly. Visiting firemen who have absolutely no interest in research. And you're not out on the frontline doing the research, you're not at the pitface. And even when you're running your own unit, and there might be 30 or 40 people in it, I won't stop working at the pitface because that's where the action and the excitement is. So the thought of taking over a whole institute, listening to all their squabbles and problems and solving all sorts of ridiculous things, has no appeal. So I suppose I'm saying that power doesn't have much interest. I think power must be a big carrot for somebody who takes that job on. They mightn't agree but that's what I suspect. It's not the sort of job ... the best job is the next one down. Because you have much more freedom and, with luck, not too much chores and you can get on with what you want to do. And still have a certain amount of clout. It's like me not choosing the first in the year as a student but choosing the second or third or somewhere down. It's a ... a warped bit of my personality.

What is success to you?

Ah, a successful experiment, a new discovery. We're in the middle of discovering a new gene that causes leukaemia, that's great, that's success for this year. Um, next year, probably, it better be something else, you won't get paid to do the same discovery again. So it's ... it's finding things and proving that you've found it and putting another block in here. That's the everyday success.

And in order to be able to keep up the work that you're doing you need to have a certain amount of confidence in yourself. Where do you think your own confidence, your own ability to believe in what you're doing, comes from?

I think it's whether something works and you discover things. There's an inbuilt mechanism that says, ‘Yes, you've still got ... you're still discovering things. Keep going.’ Um, there are plenty of people who would say, still, ‘This is a boring part of the subject to be working in, it's going to get nowhere.’ And I can say, ‘Well, you're wrong there, because you know we discovered things that people use in the clinic.’ So they can't say that any longer, they used to say that. You have to believe in yourself but you've got things that you can use as yardsticks that say, well, yes, everyone's agreeing that you are making progress. Whether it be getting something published in a top journal, whether having editorials written about, saying, ‘Oh gee, look at that, they discovered that.’ Or winning prizes that say the same thing, Yes, he's a good fella. So what keeps you going tomorrow, instead of thinking, ‘Gee I think I'm wasting my time in doing that.’ Nothing. You have to decide that every morning when you get up. Do I do this experiment again, or should I stop? It's quite hard, quite hard to stop doing things.

Have you had any problems in your work with animal liberationists, with the animal rights groups?

Um, we haven't really, we're very careful the way our mice ... and mostly we just used mice and you could say, look, the average Australian doesn't care about mice. There are mouse plagues, you kill a mouse in the kitchen if you see one, why should you worry about doing experiments? And then there's the other half of the population that says, yeah, but mice are people and you shouldn't do this and you shouldn't do that. And you shouldn't give them cancer. So, we have committees of medical ethics that are quite tough and everything you do has to be submitted to them and they argue about it and say, no, you can't do that or, yes, you can do that bit and do that. Everyone is on their best behaviour. The animal technicians who handle the mouse are a terrific lot of women who have been in this for years and they won't ... they'll interfere if they see something wrong going on. They just will stop it. Um, so we know that our rooms are superbly airconditioned and everything's fine. You would love to have a bed in there and sleep. So when you get inspected by outside organisations, like RSPCA or the animal libbers, they're sort of speechless when they see it. This is superbly kept and administered. As a safeguard, all our doors are electronically shut-able in an instant in case somebody silly has arrived and wants to break in and release all the animals. So, so far in Australia, I think everyone's very careful and people are reasonably sensible and there isn't trouble. I think if you're doing experiments with dogs or monkeys or something like that then there'd be trouble. But in other countries, like the UK, it is an enormous problem and there are constant riots, there are death threats, there are people being killed by animal liberation people, and I've seen some of their demonstrations in London and they are scary, scary. Ah, thank goodness we don't seem to have them here. Because there isn't an answer, I mean, I've heard parliamentarians get up in Trafalgar Square and speak passionately against animal experiments and I've just felt a real criminal. In the long speech there'll be one sentence that actually is wrong and you say, ‘Look you are mistaken. You're not as claimed.’ You've got that lot, you've got the people wielding chains who are out for a fight anyway, the skinheads. And then you've got the people with walking ... pet animals, that's the crowd that makes up the ... the whole front. And they just become violent, they have a tradition of violence in the UK. And not so much in the US, but in Europe it's a bit of a problem.

So what's your own justification for giving a mouse cancer?

Um, my justification is that if I can figure out using that mouse what is happening with that cancer, and figure out a treatment for cancer that can be applied to humans, then I'll do it. So I suppose I'm saying, a mouse is not equivalent to a human. But I have the greatest of respect for mice, and it's tough, you can't have it both ways, you have to say, ‘I'm sorry but I'm going to use you in an attempt to do something.’ I mean, there are certain strains of mice that if you just let them get born, will get cancer. Ninety percent of them will get leukaemia. Now I don't know how the ethicists handle that one, do they say, ‘You're morally wrong to breed those mice, knowing they're going to get leukaemia’? Or you haven't done anything to them except breed them, let them grow up. What's the answer? I don't know. I've never heard anyone address that. Lots of people tell you, ‘You can't inject that chemical into them and cause cancer,’ da, da, da. But to breed a mouse that has cancer? It's like saying to humans, ‘You can't breed, some of you are going to get cancer. It's not right to allow you to breed. Should stop having babies.’

In the broader area of research, at the forefront of where science is taking us these days, there are some ethical questions arising about biotechnology and so on, for example, we've recently been through in this country a big argument about stem cell research, well all over the world. How do you approach these ethical questions?

Look, there are so many hoops and committees you have to go through for anything you do, that all those arguments get argued about over your head and in a sense you don't worry about them. Basically all the arguments to date are so silly in terms of biology and science that it's sort of hard to keep a straight face often. I mean, notions that you might one day grow a human in a bottle, are just so far beyond what's technically possible that in a hundred, in a thousand years, you couldn't even contemplate doing it. So there's that sort of response that, get real, you ... there's no-one could actually do that. Let's stop arguing about it. Um, to questions like the ... I think are more difficult, they're not really research but it is technically possible and it's done to check on a developing baby and say, ‘Look, you're getting ... you will get Huntington's Chorea when you are born and grow up, I'm going to terminate that pregnancy.’ Now that's done every day. Or you are a Down Syndrome and out. Is that ethical? And people I don't think have a common view on that, some would say, look, that's common sense, let's not do it. And others will say, no, it's a human life, we all have an institution that looks after a person that has Down Syndrome. I'm glad that I'm not involved in medical practice, that they're much tougher questions than in the research field. Now you could say well, ‘You didn't treat that mouse too kindly, giving it cancer.’ But then does the average housewife treat a mouse kindly if she finds it running through the kitchen? No, she'll stamp on it, hit it with a broom or catch it in a trap. Kill it. Ah, it's quick I suppose ...

Or jump on the kitchen table ...

Or jump on the kitchen table.

[end of tape]

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