Australian Biography

Donald Metcalf - full interview transcript

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Do you think that the position of scientists and the prestige of scientists has changed in your lifetime, and do you think that it's at a level that is appropriate for their contribution to society?

I ... looking back at the written accounts of people like Pasteur and Koch and so on in the late 19th century, they're portrayed as giants now. You are left with the impression that maybe everything they did was written about on the front page of the daily newspaper; whether that's true or not, I've got no way of knowing. But you're left with the impression the public was aware. Now, there were dramatic things they were achieving. They were preventing diphtheria or you know, the plague. So if there are world shattering events that you've succeeded in solving you are a well-known, popular figure. If you came up with a cure for AIDS, a proper cure, I'm sure your face would be on Time magazine and you'd be a well-known person. Ah, that doesn't happen too often. So, the average scientist is anonymous. Now, is the average scientist being interviewed as often as the average footballer? Well, you know the answer is, no you're not. You can listen to an hour’s interview with a footballer's bad knee and think, well, how about an hour’s interview with a scientist, who might one day save your life? Um, so there is that argument that says you're not exposed enough. The argument then becomes, well, does the general public know enough in the broad sense about the science? Or is it impossibly difficult to explain? Now for a physicist, I think it is probably impossibly difficult. For me, as a biologist, I can talk to the general public and, I think, explain to them what I'm doing and they can associate with it, because Aunty Jo has just had this or something. So you could say, there should be more programs like Norman Swan or that Robyn Williams should actually talk to more scientists than he does, never mind the archaeology and the fossils, talk to the working scientists.

Whatever the reason, the scientists are not immediately visible. Now, if I think back over 50 years, where I'm a little more sure of what happened, the situation in Australia has always been that there are one or two people who are consulted on any question. Right? Now, I'd say there are about 10 or 20 people whose opinions are sought by the newspapers or the radio on any particular subject. So is Burnet the same as Gus Nossal? The answer is, yes he is. Because I'm sure Burnet was asked his opinion on all manner of things, as Gus Nossal is asked about ... so that the media have a sort of a limitation in their range of awareness of people you could ask to talk to. And so, passively, any public attention is focused through a few figureheads. And that of course doesn't happen with sport. You are possibly talking to all 18 football players. Maybe you talk more often to two or three. But for whatever reason, scientists are not popular figures and if you say to a newspaper man, ‘Why aren't you writing more about science? Why isn't there a bit on every page? Why aren't they rock star type personalities?’ They will say the public doesn't understand and yet, you know, the surveys say the public is most interested in news items that are about medicine, that's what they're really interested in. So who's at fault? Ah, it's blamed on the scientists who can't communicate, they flagellate themselves and go away and learn how to communicate and nothing much changes. So the answer is: it hasn't changed all that much, I think, in 50 years. But I speculate idly that maybe ... maybe in 1890 it was different, but maybe it wasn't. Maybe they were rock stars in 1890.

For the scientists, what are the practical effects of not having a level of prestige that they might have in a ... even in a different society from Australia?

I haven't been in a country where scientists actually are publicly known figures, it's not true in the UK, not true in Europe, Germany, not true in Italy, Lord help us, and not true in the US for that matter. Um, just for a brief period, the atomic bomb scientists were public figures but with those exceptions maybe Jonas Salk, somebody like that, polio vaccine, one or two but by and large, no. And what do scientists think about this? They grizzle about it if asked. And they say, ‘Wouldn't it be nice if ...’ And if it did happen, they would very soon get sick of it, have the telephone ringing and have somebody ask their opinion about this and that. That's what directors get asked and that's why I don't like being a director and that's true of most people. So they ... they'd rather be anonymous I think but if you put the question, ‘Wouldn't you like to be more publicly famous?’ They'd say, ‘Oh, yes please.’

How important have sabbaticals and periods away working in other institutes been to the progress of your work?

Um, they were important and it's a vanishing phenomenon now, there are very few people go on sabbatical leaves so, in the sense that you work six years, you had one year where you went away to some other country. Ah, that's the system I grew up with but it essentially has stopped. Why? Because meetings are more common, people fly away to meetings, it's a pseudo-sabbatical. Ah, was it important? I think you could say in one sense they were very important, you ... you met other colleagues, you met ... got exposed to different ways of doing things, different cultures, etcetera. So it was a plus. On the other hand, there were times when being away on sabbatical leave meant that a project limped along and the ... we lost the race because of it. So it was a double-edged sword. The time we spent in Holland and in the UK was the year we could've been in the first to purify and patent G-CSF and made ourselves millionaires. But ... was great living in Holland, it was great living in Cambridge, so was it better to have done the move? Yes, I think on balance. So it's something that used to be good and is now past history a bit. People now are terrified of getting lost on the ladder, if you go away you ... you're out of circulation for a year, you're a less productive ... da da and less likely to get your grant and so people don't do it. It's tougher, tougher life.

You mentioned the race, is there a race? How does the race work? Have you ever lost a race?

There are all sorts of races: there's a race to be the first to achieve something, to discover something, and you sort of know that there are four other groups working on this subject and what progress they're at. So that's a direct race. Have you got it first? Did you get it published first? It all depends on the publication date, that's a race. Um, is there a race ... race is perhaps not quite the right word. There is intense competition, starting with being a very young scientist to get tenure, tenure meaning to get made a research fellow, which is a three-year appointment. It's not tenure, it's a ... but at least you've got your first foot on the ladder and next foot up, that is a higher grade fellow and so you would work up to a senior research fellow or a principal research fellow. That's a level of a professor. Now that depends on your productivity, so were you the first to discover something? Were you in the best journals? Are you the most cited scientist, etcetera, etcetera? All of those things will determine whether or not you make that next jump. So that's a ... it becomes, in a sense, the same race, it was the same race to get that piece of science published and finished first that will make you the most likely to get made the ... the next step up on the ladder. Now you have to go up the ladder, it's up or out. That's the rule. You can't stay being a research fellow for 20 years, you get thrown out. That's ... the rules say, no, you've got to ... you've got to keep going. It's not a good life.

What about the race to patent things?

That happens very rarely but it is a real race and we have lost patent races by half a day. Half a day, so you work on a project for several years and in half a day, somebody has filed essentially the same patent in Europe or US. It happens.

This happened to you?

Oh, it's happened to us twice. We've lost a patent by hours.

Tell us about the day. What happened, why ... you were going to file it?

That's it. Well it's ... you know, you work on a project for three years, when it’s the day you decide you've got enough and the lawyers have gone through it and it's correct and it's filed. And it's that minute of filing that determines the priority.

So you were in a position where you were ready to file?

Oh yeah.

Why didn't you?

Well, because we were going to do it this afternoon and somebody else did it this morning. Ah, that happens. It's a competitive life. It's like saying, ‘Why didn't you run faster in the Melbourne Cup, you could've got your head ... head, that half-head, should've started bit more quickly.’ World's full of should haves.

So how ...

And sometimes we've beaten people. Beaten big US companies who are furious that they picked up a journal and there was our publication. Some ... some you win, some you lose.

How did you realise that you'd been pipped at the post?

Oh, you ... it's all on file, you can check, see whose patent applications are in and what the ... it's all accessible on the web, oh yes. Now we have an office that does that but you can do it yourself.

Now when you first went to the Hall Institute, the famous Macfarlane Burnet was the director. What was he like?

He was a strange mixture of being ... an introverted person. He was quite unable to give a lecture, couldn't stand up at a podium and speak, he always read his lecture. Now the last time I've seen anyone read a written lecture is 30, 40 years ago. And people, in fact, it's a very difficult thing to be able to read a lecture, newsreaders I admire, I mean, it's a skill. Okay, so there was that aspect to him. He liked to work by himself in the lab. He'd work in the morning and in the afternoons he'd go to his office and do his writing. Um, was he approachable? Sort of, yes, you could go to him with a body of evidence and say, ‘Look, I'll run this by you, what do you think?’ Um, he was very shy in public. And yet, he sought the admiration and adulation, and people are mixtures. So you could say he was egotistical in part, on the other hand you could say, well, he's an introvert. So he was not a hail fellow, well met, back-slapping, gregarious sort. No, he'd be in ... over in the corner of the room with people avoiding him because it was hard to think of anything to attract his attention.

You were already at the institute when he got his Nobel Prize?


Was that a great time of celebration there?

We went to Jimmy Watson's [wine bar and restaurant] for a barbecue lunch. Jimmy Watson's, it's a good place to have a celebration, lots of wine to drink. He wasn't a great drinker but I'm sure he had a couple. That's a pretty modest sort of celebration but then people were modest in 1962. It was a big deal to walk over to Jimmy Watson's and have a barbecue.

And although he had a certain sort of, how shall we say, scepticism about what you were doing, and the work that you were doing in cancer research, how did he actually treat you, one to one?

Ah well, I was prone to make outrageous statements, I was probably an adult ratbag often and on those occasions he would treat me with disdain. Um, no, as a junior colleague there was nothing ... nothing strange about the way he behaved, still you couldn't get him particularly interested in talking about, for example, cancer. But with time the two fields moved together some and he became quite interested in immunology and how it might have an impact on cancer so on those, you know, late in life, it was quite easy to talk about subjects that had some interest to him. But that's the same with everyone, if somebody came and talked to me about lung disease or heart disease I'd ... that's not my field, I've got nothing to say much.

When you had a change of director and Gus Nossal came in as director, what ... how would you describe Gus?

Well, he was the extroverted, back-slapping type, wasn't he? He was an Austrian, exuberant, enthusiastic. He taught me one important thing, which was if you want to criticise somebody, compliment them. If they're being recalcitrant and a pain in the neck, congratulate them on something. Slap their back and say, ‘You've done a fantastic job.’ And with my Scottish upbringing I thought this was crazy, I would haul them over the coals and rabbit on. So I decided to try this. Compliment, and it's a very powerful system for bringing people to heel, to say, ‘You have done a fantastic job. Now how about ...’ So, he had this sort of instinctive ability to deal with people and manipulate them. It wasn't that there weren't fights amongst staff that he found very difficult to cope with but, in general, it was perpetual enthusiasm, everything was on a roll and it was go, go, go. And so people did sort of behave the same way, that's being a leader in the positive, enthusiastic sense. Treated the same with politicians and so the money rolled in and you could do what you wanted to do. Um, was he able to discuss science with a junior colleague and provide some insights that might help the project along? Yeah, probably. In his field, but it wasn't ... our fields weren't completely overlapping so it didn't happen very often.

As the second in charge, did you find yourself doing more of that kind of close work with the ... with the scientific work while he did the more public face?

That's the way he did it, that was the nice thing about him, he sort of did all the PR administrative chores and it was only when he was away on sabbatical leave that I had to do it. So I was left pretty free. Which doesn't always happen. Assistant directors, some get dumped with all the dirty work.

You have really contrasted personalities.

We do. Strange that, isn't it? But we never really had any fights. We were totally different personalities and probably disagreed on most things but we got on pretty well. Didn't have any fights. That I recall.

What about his scientific work, was he able to continue it at all after he took on that job? You avoided the job, were afraid of that.

Um, he tried and he did, and managed to keep the pot boiling to a certain level but it's an impossible job, there are demands on your time and you just have to stop — once you stop in the middle of something you ... it's cooked. So if he was in a team and he was doing one particular job and time permitted, well he could keep going but it wasn't the same as working 24 hours a day on it. So he would say, he was a failure as a scientist, he wasn't able to keep going, was one of the regrets he had that he could no longer be a scientist and I would agree. You can't do it.

There was a lot of publicity, some time back, more than 10 years ago, when you were supposed to have retired. What happened?

I came to work the next morning. Um, it actually became illegal to sack anyone on the basis of age that year, I think. But I just turned up the next morning, 7 o'clock, started working again. The terms of my fellowship had no termination age, the new director sort of agreed to let me keep working and actually, by law now, if you can keep earning your research grants, you're allowed to keep working, it doesn't matter how old you are. It's the same in the US, same in England. So there are 80-year-olds who are dragging in their research grants and working. Not working at the bench but leading teams that are successful.

In February of that year, when you turned 65, what actually were you required to retire from?

It happened in two stages: Gus asked me to stay on as assistant director until he retired and he's two years younger than me, so we were really talking about when Gus became 65 and I was now 67. And the only overt sign of it, apart from the fact that you were no longer director and assistant director, was that you were no longer a professor in the university because they still had the retiring age of 65. But then if you were well-behaved you became an emeritus professor, so ... which we both did eventually. But otherwise you ... you're no longer head of your unit or your team or your division or whatever it was called. So I was still the head of my laboratory and I still am, but I have a boss over me. I have two bosses, a director and a ... the head of the division, who used to be under me. So it was changing, changing stools.

How does that feel?

I feel fine with it. Whether he feels that there's a grey ghost that's difficult to dislodge, I don't know. But if I produce the goods for him, he should be satisfied, I keep out of his hair.

Who is he?

Nick ... Nick Nicola.

And how do you get on with him?

He's fine. Fine. But you tend to be marginalised as you get older and I wrote a paper about relevance. You are no longer relevant, you're no longer in a power structure so you're not relevant in the sense that you used to be assistant director, therefore you are a pretty high-powered semi-god. Um, you're no longer leading your unit, so the work that you might be doing is no longer visible as some powerful group in the world. And what you're doing suddenly becomes irrelevant. And you say, ‘Well who ... who invented relevance? What is relevance?’ So I wrote this essay about relevance and being relevant. And it's fashions. So you have an important person in a field who says, ‘I'm going to work on the thymus.’ And that's it. The thymus is it. And you have a whole bunch of other people that say, ‘Gee let's work on the thymus, that's where the action is.’ And the grants might go to the people working on the thymus. So if you're working on the big toe and doing fantastic work, nobody wants to know about it, you can't stop them in the street and say, ‘Look what I've done for the big toe, it's fantastic.’ So that's what you tend to find happening, so your colleagues are no longer coming to you with their data, as they used to when you were the boss, and you perhaps are not getting invited to international meetings to be a speaker. Because you're not part of the current visible view. And you become a sort of non-person and that's when you really have to hang on hard to your self-belief and say, ‘What I'm doing is actually important and I don't care that people aren't paying attention. I will still do it.’ It's an interesting cycle you go through.

How hard do you find that?

I don't find that hard now, because I actually collaborate with at least 12 other groups of younger people and they are desperate to get me to do their part of the work for them, so I'm in demand. But am I regarded internationally as being one of the top dogs? I don't think so. No, because you're not the one that's leading that particular study. So I'm part of the action which is great. But I'm not creating the action, which I don't mind.

One reason that there was a retirement age was that, otherwise, how do you get rid of people who are no longer useful? How will you know when it's time to go, when you're not being effective any more?

I get examined for my senility twice every two years, formally. A little committee meets to consider whether I should still be employed and still be the fellow and I front up to them and basically they are producing a report that says, ‘Look, 12 publications, come on? Who else in the place has got 12 publications in the last year? Show me somebody who's got a better performance?’ It's ... there's no argument to that.

So, is it making your work even harder at 77, Don?

Oh yes. Yeah, I would hate to be senile and not realise it. So I am hoping that people do say, ‘Sorry, listen, you've done enough, stop.’ Somebody has to say that at some stage. I don't ... you never change, you may have noticed this, that you stay a little young person staring out of your eyes and you haven't changed since you were 15. And it's very hard to realise that outside you are getting old and tired and slow-looking and maybe are not competent, so it's sort of sad when you come across people who are over the hill to say, ‘Look, stop.’ Most often they've stopped anyway but for people like me it's going to fall on somebody one day to say, ‘Look, you're just ... you've got to stop.’

And when that happens, and you're not getting up and going every day to the lab, what will you do?

Yes, there's going to be real trouble, I will become a menace in the household, probably. I will start reading more books, I will start listening to more records and, don't know, cause trouble. What I ... what I ...

Do you dread the day, do you dread it?

Ah, I don't envisage the day, I really do think I'll be found dead at the microscope, I hope that's what happens. Why stop? Why stop if you're competent enough to be doing something? There is absolutely no point, there's an infinity of stuff to discover and if you can keep discovering things, why stop?

And what is it now that you're working on?

What am I working on now? I'm working on some mouse disease models, that are detecting a new gene, and so I'm asking questions. How does that gene work? Why is it that if you have too much of its product, you're getting leukaemia? What's it done to the cells? What's it made them do that's changed? A whole series of techniques for analysing what's changed in their behaviour. That's one of my projects, I like doing that one, it's a good one. But there are other mutant mice that have various diseases and I'm trying to figure out what it is that is responsible for the fact that they've got low white cell levels or low platelet levels or whatever. So it's experimental pathology, trying to figure out the causes and mechanisms that have gone wrong. It ... I've got an enormous backlog of stuff to do. It's harder working now than it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago.


Because there's a shortage of people with my skills so we've got an institute full of molecular biologists, generating these fabulous models, and nobody able to take them to pieces and say, ‘What's happened? What's gone wrong?’ It's a very strange time. A golden age for biologists. Because you would have killed to have disease models like this 20, 30 years ago. And they're everywhere, take your pick. Marvellous.

Why aren't there more people with your skills, given all the people who've passed through your hands and worked with you and learnt from you? What's happened to them?

It's a worry, isn't it? They ... they've become administrators or famous professors of pathology or bacteriology or something. Have I trained successes? Yes, I've trained successes, one is the head of the Ludwig Institute, one is my boss, the obvious ones. But they're not, they don't have my skill base, they have different skills: one's a biochemist, both are biochemists, so they're not, in a sense, replacing me and it's curious that I can't persuade anyone to do exactly the same sorts of techniques that I do. And it should be a worry to the whole institute, they can't start developing a replacement, so it's going to be in real trouble, the day I stop.

Is it because what you're doing is too hard?

Oh, absolutely. It requires brilliance, perception and it requires years of slog, slog, learning what's what and making mistakes and getting experience. And people don't like working at microscopes, they find it physically exhausting. Um, I can't believe they find it boring, it's not a boring subject. Um, and they find it demanding in that there are no easy fixes and you've got to learn your trade and it takes decades of experience. So it's unappealing to the young, they want to get rich and famous, fast. Not rich, but successful.

With this range of things that you're working on at the moment, are any of them promising you something like the CSFs, something like that, that will really make a difference? You've spoken about how important it is to you to do things that have relevance.

Yeah. The answer is, yes, but it's getting indirect and it's a bit out of our hands but, for example, this new gene that my colleagues and I are working on, it's ... whose function we've just discovered and we know when it's overactive, causes leukaemia. So you could say, okay the protein that that gene codes for, must be nasty news inside a white cell. Bad for it. And you make an artificial molecule that will block its action. Or destroy it and the answer is, in principle, yes you can. But you need then to go to other people, like medicinal chemists, like structural biologists, who can figure out the exact shape of the molecule and figure out how you can put something in here that would block its action. Now that's another department so you have to persuade them this is a tech ... this is a question that's going to be great. So that's going on. There are lots of molecules we've discovered and they're being worked on by structural biologists and maybe antagonists will come out of it. And then you'll be testing them in the clinic and seeing if they work. Things take a long time. CSF story took 30 years, so will these stories, even today. So the molecules that are a family, called the Socs molecules, are being developed — will they ever be used clinically? Come back in 20 years’ time and we can perhaps tell you, but it's ... it's a complex process in finding and synthesising the little key that will block this lock. But it can be done, there are successful examples, so it is the right track to follow, it's just finding enough bodies to do it and spending the years trial and error.

You're just going to have to go on working until you're 100.

Yes, it's a worry, isn't it?

You've described the commercial advantages of some of the ... the commercial exploitation of some of the things that have been discovered in a laboratory. Is the commercial environment in which science now operates helpful or not in relation to the development of new ideas, do you think?

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