Office of NIH History
In Their Own Words: NIH Researchers Recall the Early Years of AIDS
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Rodrigues: I think some of what you just said ties in with our next question, and that has to do with the problems of working as a federal scientist, being under the Freedom of Information “microscope,” as it were. In your book you also talk about a number of the bureaucratic problems at NIH that seem to be increasing and that hamper your ability to function. In addition, we have read that you have undoubtedly received attractive offers outside of NIH but you have elected to stay here.

Gallo: You are right. I wrote about the increase in bureaucratic responsibilities at NIH, the increased administrative load. Yes, I have elected to stay here, and yes, I have had attractive offers, sometimes monumentally attractive offers. I am sorry that I forget the first part of your statement, but you said something important and I must have repressed it for some reason.

Rodrigues: Was it about the Freedom of Information Act?

Gallo: Yes. I was repressing it. You also asked me about the Freedom of Information Act. Obviously, having gone through the experience I have gone through, I think the Freedom of Information Act is for the birds and the bird-brains. This is a self-destructive process. I know it was the creation of an act of good will by an intelligent Senator, [Edward] Kennedy, but it can be, and has been, abused and will continue to be abused by some people. Like many things in a democracy, it is a wonderful idea, and maybe in the end it will do far more good than harm, but it also has a horrendous down-side. One can understand why we are the only country I know of in the world with anything like this. If we keep doing things like this, we might just as well close shop because if somebody wants to abuse Freedom of Information they can, and they have abused it. Yes, there has been more bureaucracy. There has been a fear that if we do not take care of our own responsibilities... In part some of that was justified. I do not want to speak without any responsibility myself. If I have a problem in the laboratory, if everything had been governed better day-to-day, those problems would not have occurred. I do not think I can blame anybody but myself for some of that. But, on the other hand, we came out of medical school and I had never even had a job. I went to medical school. In college, medical school, internship, residency, you do not have much free time. You are not roundly educated in life. You come to NIH, you work very hard, and you want to make your career in research. You are insecure so you work excessively and you try more and more.

What experiences do you have in life, in general? Very few. All of a sudden you find yourself a branch chief at age 31 or 32, and you are responsible for a whole program. We are not exactly money managers, we are not investigators; we do not have access to peoples' records, or bank accounts. We cannot be policemen and judges. We cannot be lawyers. The situation exists in the [National] Cancer Institute now–I do not know about the rest of NIH–but Dr. [Samuel] Broder's policy is that we have no administrative help, so all responsibility rests on the branch chief's shoulders.

I think he is wrong. If he were here I would say it and I would argue with him. I think it is just the opposite of what should be done. We are often incompetent managers. We are scientific directors, but not many of us were born to be managers. I consider myself a lousy administrative manager, but that is what our jobs are now. I mean, I do not know if I am a lousy manager, but I am not great at it. I do not know what I am doing in such a position.

We used to have administrative help. We used to be able to have scientists who decided to become administrators, who were not going to make it in pure science, and they could help. We called them associate branch chiefs. We have no such positions now. Everything is the responsibility of the laboratory chief. So, if something goes wrong, if somebody does something wrong, if a mistake is made, whether it be in the budget, or anything else, it all rests on the [shoulders of the] laboratory chief. You find yourself increasingly unable to have the freedom not to be pressured and not to be thinking, but just free to have those rapid ideas come into your head.

Now, it is either age, stress, or lack of time, one of the three, but I do not have as many free-ranging ideas as I used to have. I used to get ideas constantly. If anything, developing hypotheses, trying to test them and work them out, and seeing concepts were what I think I was best at. It is hard now for me to have free thoughts, to have that moment of relaxation, or peace, or whatever you want to call it. Of course this has taken a lot out of us. Anybody who says otherwise... You do not want to say that you are not productive, because you still want to be thought of as productive and to be able to sell yourself properly, so we are productive. But if somebody asked me, “What more could you have done if this had not happened?" I would have no idea. I only know that I spent a good 50-60 percent of my time for many years on administration. What about when I was free and was not having to spend my time on this stuff? Was my mind free, or was I thinking, “What does tomorrow bring?" I went through a period, and I may have said this to you before, but this is literally true, when I used to wear shoes that did not ever have strings on them because I did not want to take the time to tie my shoes. I could not wait to get to work. I notice that today I do not have strings on my shoes, but I was going to say that now I almost always have strings. I guess that I could not wait to get to talk to you.

Harden: Good. We are glad. I want to ask one more question along these same lines before we move back to science. This is more a rhetorical follow-up question. One of the things that has struck a number of people–with regard to all this controversy–is that the scientific community has not fallen into line and said, “A scientist is being challenged here.” There has been a split. Someone suggested that this may be because of the highly competitive nature of biomedical research and that other disciplines are not so highly competitive. I know Freeman Dyson wrote a piece in The American Scholar about this saying that scientists should be sticking together. I wonder whether there is any validity to this? Do you think biomedical research is the most highly competitive scientific discipline? Is it too competitive?

Gallo: Let me answer your question of whether biomedical research is too competitive and whether that contributes to the scientists not being unified in responding to some of the, let us say, media addicts, or political pressures, or rhetoric, by saying that is a possible interpretation. But let me remind you that, whatever the interpretation is, it is a constant. It was true in [Dr.] David Baltimore's case. It was true in the President of Stanford's case, [Dr. Donald] Don Kennedy. It was certainly true in the [Dr. Bernard] Fisher case. It was true in mine. It has been true historically. I do not know if the existing scientific community at the time rallied so well for Galileo. Show me a period where anybody was really rallying and how effective it was? Was it effective with [Dr. Robert] Oppenheimer?

Part of it, I think, is human nature. Part of it is who knows the truth? First of all, scientists on the outside could not know everything. Second, if a scientist is your friend and knows what happened, he is identified as your friend, so he is dismissed quickly. He is not valuable. His word does not mean anything; he is your friend. So they get your enemy. Then they have a real honest opinion. That is the way that things go. Your enemies can talk but your friend cannot. If you get a third party, who is neither your friend nor a problem for you, generally they do not know and so what do they say? They cannot say too much. But if they try to get involved they lose time from their own research. Moreover, those who speak the truth become targeted, don't they? What happened to people who did? I had better not discuss this. I do not want to get to specifics. But, sometimes when a scientist comes forward, they can, in turn, have problems. If scientists unified and came forward, if there was an organized body and they spent, I would say, two to three days on this problem in the open air, like Pericles in the Forum, we would have this over in one or two days if there was a population watching the interactions. But behind the scenes you cannot do anything. When it is not open you cannot do anything. People can say and do what they want. They can release reports, they can stimulate the news media, and there is no response you can make, particularly if you work for the government.

It is highly competitive in science. I cannot tell you that it is more than in business, or more than in politics, but it is more than in some fields, without doubt. But I also believe that in science there is–maybe–more self-interest, a little more paranoia, a little more narcissism, or else why do we go into it? You think you are good enough to solve problems of nature? Many scientists tend to keep things to themselves. If the other person does not get funded, maybe you will be funded. All these things are in play, but these are the worst elements of science or of scientists. This is not true of everybody and this is not true of most everybody. I think the chief reason is lack of time and information, though sometimes people must enjoy the comedy of it all if they are at a safe distance.

Harden: I want to ask you to reflect on one more topic. When you described in your book the development of the ELISA test for AIDS, you noted that you had never previously applied for a patent. We have heard this from many NIH scientists. Suddenly, in 1986, the Technology Transfer Act was enacted and NIH scientists had to be involved in patents. I would like for you to expand a little more on the changes that have been wrought by the biotechnology revolution and the commercialization it brought because many people have also talked about the French-American controversy over the money that is involved in the patent for the AIDS test. So we were dealing with commercialization. Would you expand on those?

Gallo: Yes. The biotechnology revolution, as you have put it, and the commercialization in science obviously have had a dramatic impact. You used the patent problem, the United States-French royalty problem, as an example and you pointed out that it came–unfortunately, with us having no experience–precisely at the moment that we were finding the cause of AIDS and developing the blood test.

Truthfully, I did not even know you could patent such things when we were told about patenting. In my naiveté I tended to think of patents as, for example, when you make a light bulb, that should be patented. It is for an invention, it is not for big laboratory science, biomedical science. I never really knew or followed the development of patenting, even as late as 1983-84, I was not aware of it. I heard a few things about it, and the biotechnology industry was already on its way, of course, but we had never patented anything. To repeat, we had not patented interleukin-2. We did not patent HTLV-I. We did not patent HTLV-II. We did not patent the discovery of the myc translocation in Burkitt's lymphoma. We did not patent multiple cell lines developed by this laboratory, some of which are commercially available.

We were told to patent the blood test, period. I just learned from Suzanne Hadley–I could not remember what was going on in that period of time, and she provided me with an answer, earlier this week–that I was not here. I was in Cremona, Italy, and my colleagues were pressed to move fast. Moving fast, she reflected, was probably needed because I was starting to talk, not about the data, but by saying that we had this thing wrapped up, that it was definitely the cause of AIDS, and that we were developing a blood test. So the government had to move quickly.

I was told the reasons for that were because we had to protect against fraud, we had to get the big companies involved, and there needed to be some exclusiveness. I think those were legitimate and valid reasons. But, of course, patents breed money, money breeds many things–lawyers, problems, arguments, and governments–and the whole business that I saw before my eyes. It was just an incredible saga. I tried to follow what I was asked to follow by the government, and that is what I can say.

But, to answer your question in the way you put it, in a broader context and not limited to the blood test patent and the controversies that surrounded it, it is obvious that the biotechnology revolution has done, and will continue to do, great things for medicine. That is the positive edge of the sword. The other edge is that it creates all these other things. It holds back information, it looks for money, it has to be fueled by money, and it leads to hyper-competition. It is not going to be stopped. The culture of science has already changed. It will change more and it will evolve like the chemistry industry and like physics, I suppose. Maybe it already has. But the good should outweigh the bad. As better rules are formulated, the bad [aspects] will be more controlled. But clearly it has catalyzed moving information forward in record time and bringing things to the clinic in record time, and it is not yet anywhere near reaching its stride. So it is a necessity. We are going through very difficult growing pains and we are going through it often without having a clear head.

continued on Page 05

 

 
 
 
       
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