Randy W. Schekman’s speech at the Nobel Banquet in the Stockholm City Hall, 10 December 2013.
Your majesties, your royal highnesses, ladies and gentlemen.
On behalf of my colleagues Jim Rothman and Tom Südhof, I am deeply honored and humbled by the recognition you have bestowed on us today. I view this occasion as one of the great moments of my life, one that I am thrilled to share with my wife and children, my father and family, friends, colleagues and the students of mine who made this day possible.
I wish particularly to acknowledge the Nobel Foundation for its recognition of basic science. This year’s Laureates in the natural sciences reflect the value of curiosity-driven inquiry, unfettered by top-down management of goals and methods. Government funding of basic research in the US started after WWII with a transformative report “Science: Endless Frontiers”, written by Vannevar Bush the science advisor to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. He wrote, “Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown … Freedom of inquiry must be preserved under any plan for government support of science.”
That freedom of inquiry nourished the careers of today’s Laureates. Jim Rothman and Tom Südhof discovered the molecular basis of neurotransmitter release at the junction of nerve cells and between nerve and muscle cells. The molecules they probed are the targets of a potent toxin produced by a poisonous bacterium that causes botulism. No one could have predicted a practical application of this knowledge yet judging from the many handsome, near perfect faces here this evening, some of you may have personal experience with Botox, the commercial term for that toxin. The uses of Botox extend well beyond the cosmetic, including the treatment of debilitating neuromuscular diseases such as afflicted the concert pianist Leon Fleischer who after 30 years of paralysis, has now been restored to the concert stage.
The work in my laboratory probed the molecular basis of protein secretion in baker’s yeast. We had no notion of any practical application of this work, and yet after we learned that yeast cells use a pathway fundamentally the same as in human cells, the biotechnology industry applied this knowledge to engineer the production of commercially useful quantities of human proteins. One-third of the world supply of recombinant human insulin is produced in yeast. Again, it is likely that some of you here tonight benefit from this discovery and technology.
Many of you can recount similar stories where an investment in basic science has resulted in a direct application to medicine and technology. And yet we find a growing tendency for government to want to manage discovery with expansive so-called strategic science initiatives at the expense of the individual creative exercise we celebrate today. Louis Pasteur recognized this tension long before the trend towards managed science. He wrote, “There does not exist a category of science to which one can give the name applied science. There are sciences and the application of science, bound together as the fruit of the tree which bears it”.
And to the memory of Alfred Nobel for his vision to recognize individual scientific achievement, to Louis Pasteur and the beverage industry he saved, and to yet another example of yeast fermentation technology, I offer a toast to our gracious Swedish hosts. Skål!
Their work and discoveries range from paleogenomics and click chemistry to documenting war crimes.
See them all presented here.