Title: American Democracy and the Origins of Biomedical Revolution
27 - February - Lecture
1 - March - Discussion
Lecturer: Joan A. Steitz, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry

J.A. Steitz received her Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (with J.D. Watson) from Harvard University, did postdoctoral work at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (with F. Crick) in Cambridge, England, and has been on the faculty of Yale University since 1970. Honors include the Passano Foundation Young Scientist Award, the Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry, the U.S. Steel Award in Molecular Biology, the National Medal of Science, the Dickson Prize for Science, the Warren Triennial Prize (shared with T. Cech), the Christopher Columbus Discovery Award in Biomedical Research, the Weizmann Women and Science Award, the City of Medicine Award, and the Novartis-Drew Award for Biomedical Science. Dr. Steitz is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lecture Description:

The biomedical revolution started in l953 with the discovery of the structure of DNA, the genetic material, by Watson and Crick. This led to the growth of a new discipline called molecular biology. The resulting development in the mid-1970s of recombinant DNA spawned the biotechnology industry, advances in the prevention and treatment of disease (diagnostic tests, monitoring the blood supply), genetically modified foods and now the human genome. Why has this spectacular revolution in understanding and application occurred primarily in the US rather than in other nations equally competent in science?

We will discuss how diversity both in the structure of higher education in the US and in the funding of basic biomedical research has contributed. The decision of the American government after World War II to invest in basic research, leading to the founding of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and expansion of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was certainly key. However, the non-hierarchical structure of faculties at research universities (both public and private) and the disproportionate representation of graduates of liberal arts colleges (which do not exist elsewhere in the world) in science are also major factors. Likewise, the plurality of funding sources that have supported pursuit-of-knowledge rather than strategic research goals has been critical. Both governmental agencies (NIH and NSF) and private foundations, such as the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), have relied on peer review, markedly increasing the probability of funding truly innovative ideas. Finally, the American scientist is not a passive recipient, but much more of an activist engaged in shaping research policy than scientists elsewhere.

Copyright 2001, Joan A. Steitz






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