Unnatural selection

A saviour from human ills or the means to a new super-genetic over-class? Karen Kissane reports from the biotech frontline.
The recipe for a longed-for baby used to be a man, a woman and a touch of stardust. But that was before some kinds of baby-making moved into the laboratory; before the warm surrender to fate was chilled by the cool reckoning of science; before new technologies for making humans began to raise fears of a “post-human” world.

It was before the creation of children moved from a private affair between individuals to a public issue debated in committees and classrooms. In this history and philosophy of science tutorial at Melbourne University, there are few stars in the eyes of students talking about reproductive options.

They are told to imagine a child, Sarah, dying of leukaemia. Is it right to clone her so that her life can be saved by cells obtained from the cloned 12-week-old foetus, even if this risks miscarriage of the clone?
Two young women think the cloning is OK but suggest the cloned foetus should be aborted at 12 weeks, after the cells are obtained, because the siblings would face emotional problems growing up as genetic twins who are years apart in age.
But Patrick, another student in the class, is uneasy that this cloning would conceive new life purely to service an existing one. He thinks this principle could justify “a laboratory somewhere where they just make body parts from people and take what they need and they’re not humans any more; they’re just there for our purposes”.

This is the central issue in the growing international debate about reproductive technologies: what is human dignity, and how should it be upheld?

In 1992, the US Supreme Court declared that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”.

Does this mean that respecting human dignity requires allowing people freedom to choose according to their own moral framework, leaving bio-ethics decisions to the parents who must live with their consequences? Or is there something greater that must be protected, and that justifies the community setting legislative boundaries?

Organised religion is languishing, and with it the belief that humans are precious because they are made in the image of God. So what now justifies the erection of a safety fence around “humanness”? And what will happen if we yield to the very human temptation to tinker with it?

The sci-fi scenarios floated after the birth of the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, in 1978 are now on our doorstep. Technology is close to breakthroughs that some would argue are not so much life-enhancing as death-denying. Bio-ethicist Professor Julian Savulescu, who works at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, knows of a Melbourne couple who has already asked if their child, who died soon after birth, could be cloned. (The answer, on both technical and ethical grounds, was no.)
At least two Victorian women have medically retrieved sperm from the bodies of their recently dead husbands, hoping to conceive children post-mortem (in Britain, where one woman has conceived two children this way, the tabloids call it the “sperm widow” phenomenon). In the US, grieving parents of an adult daughter who died leaving frozen embryos behind paid a surrogate to bear their grandchild for them.

Medicine has always been about cheating nature, but now it is doing so in ways that challenge our sense of what is “normal”. A 63-year-old in Italy has become a mother; in Melbourne, IVF specialist Professor Carl Wood has helped a post-menopausal woman of 52 conceive a child using a donor egg.

We do not have to wait for cloning to see the way new technology can produce strange kinks in kinship. Some infertile men now ask their fathers, brothers or cousins to donate semen for artificial insemination. Older women in several countries have acted as surrogates for their daughters’ babies, giving birth to their own grandchildren.

For some, the right to choose is now extending to the right to choose what others see as a disability. A Melbourne IVF specialist, Dr John McBain, has reported that a deaf couple applied to use embryo selection to conceive a deaf child.

It is possible to imagine a world in which sex and procreation are separated. In Japan, researchers have gestated goats in an artificial womb, conjuring visions of foetal organ banks, or of human hatcheries like those in the sci-fi movie The Matrix. If that arouses anxieties about women being made redundant, the gender balance is weirdly restored by other researchers who have grown a rat embryo from the fusion of two female eggs, without any sperm.
While the inhuman possibilities are chilling, most current concern swirls around the prospect of superhumans. People might end up being bred like animals, argues social philosopher Francis Fukuyama, professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University, in his new book Our Post-human Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution.

He writes, “Geneticist Lee Silver paints a future scenario in which a woman produces a hundred or so embryos, has them automatically analysed for a ‘genetic profile’, and then with a few clicks of the mouse selects the one that not only lacks ¤ single-gene disorders like cystic fibrosis, but also has enhanced characteristics such as height, hair colour and intelligence.”

A Melbourne couple approached Wood about genetic selection to help them avoid a child with low intelligence (but not retardation), a problem that ran in one side of their family. If Wood had been able to help them, would he have been right to do so?

Silver is also quoted in the new book Redesigning Humans: Choosing Our Children’s Genes, by Gregory Stock, director of the Program on Medicine, Technology and Society at the school of Medicine at UCLA.

He writes, “Silver, a molecular biologist at Princeton University ¤ imagines we may eventually expand our senses by replicating special adaptations found in other animals: ultraviolet and infrared vision (from spiders and snakes); the detection of magnetism (birds); sonar (bats) and acute smell (dogs).” If you find cross-species enhancement repugnant, consider this: what if a monkey gene were found that could, without harm, protect humans against AIDS?

Stock does not think such scenarios are threatening: “Re-making ourselves is the ultimate expression of our humanity.” Fukuyama, on the other hand, believes humanity is in danger of losing itself. He argues for international laws limiting how we use reproductive technologies in order to protect human nature, human dignity and the principle of universal human rights, which he sees as based on the idea of a humanity we all share.
Students in the class at Melbourne University believe it is difficult to deny parents any kind of selection because of principles that are well established with regard to abortion. Discussing the question of whether a deaf couple should be allowed to abort a hearing foetus, Jenny points out, “People can just abort a healthy foetus day-to-day for any other purpose.”

Says Courtney, “If you’re going to give people the right to pick and choose children based on their genetic factors, then I don’t think you can (dictate) what they choose from. If they want to abort a child because it doesn’t have blue eyes, you have to give them that right.” Agrees Thao, “Separate to the issue of whether abortion is right, if you are enabling selection, then you can’t draw lines around how it is used ¤ Someone might want a boy, someone might want someone who’s intelligent.”

Catholics and many other Christians view the creation of life – conception through to birth – as sacred and untouchable because it is “peculiarly under the hand of God”, says Jesuit priest and ethicist Father Bill Uren. But it sounds like God might have to move over.

Parental narcissism has always made sly mockery of another Judeo-Christian idea, the notion of the child as a gift from God, to be treasured in his or her own right. Parents who want children to mirror themselves, or to achieve what they have not, have long shoehorned gentle kids into footy, sporty kids into violin lessons, shy kids into dance class. Is it that much bigger a step to allow parents to choose an embryo that will have a gene for athleticism or musicality – or deafness or dwarfism?

Savulescu believes current selection is too narrowly focused on avoiding problems such as cystic fibrosis. He says future parents should be allowed to choose positive characteristics to maximise their children’s chances in life.

“I believe our essential humanness is our rationality, our ability to reason and make judgments about what’s best for us, and not just be handed whatever fate dishes up to us,” he says. “The story of humanity is one of struggling to change the world for the better and ourselves for the better.”

Parents should be allowed to select a deaf or dwarf embryo, even though it is not what Savulescu would choose. “We do better to allow them to express their humanness to think, to evaluate, to choose and to act.”

But Uren is critical of shopping for a custom fit. He says: “It’s not a contractual relationship we’re entering into when we have a child; it’s not a trade relationship. It’s a gifting, and we don’t put conditions upon this sort of gift.”

As well as being a priest, Uren is an ethicist at Brisbane’s Mater Hospital for Women and Children and a member of the Australian Health Ethics Committee with the National Health and Medical Research council. He says it would be wrong to use genetic selection in ways that subordinate the interests of the prospective child to the desires of the parents.

A philosopher at the Australian Catholic University, Peter Coghlan, fears children would be burdened by unrealistic parental expectations as the notion of unconditional love was undermined.

There are many ways in which new technologies might re-draw the ways relatives are linked to each other. Fukuyama, though, is most concerned about their impact on society.

He argues that the complex, evolved natures of humans should be protected against self-modification. “We do not want to disrupt either the unity or continuity of human nature, and thereby the human rights that are based on it,” he says.

Fukuyama argues that biotechnology “advances” would involve unpalatable trade-offs. A mouse that had its intelligence genetically boosted also seemed to experience greater pain. “We can cure this disease, or make this child more tractable, at the expense of some ineffable human quality like genius, or ambition, or sheer diversity.”

Would mathematician John Nash’s “beautiful mind” have lost its comet-streak of brilliance if he had been modified to avoid schizophrenia?

Fukuyama and Stock concur on one point; as genetic enchancements become available, people will want to use them. Fukuyama believes people want to “medicalise” as much of their behaviour as possible, reducing responsibility for their actions, and that they will be encouraged to do this by powerful economic interests such as biotech companies. He cites the increasing use of drugs such as Ritalin to treat children with attention disorders as evidence.

Stock predicts the motive will be evolutionary competition. “As long as people compete with each other for money, status and mates, as long as they look for ways to display their worth and uniqueness, they will look for an edge for themselves and their children.”

But genetic selection might sneak into the public’s comfort zone because of its health benefits. The Melbourne University lecturer of the ethics class, Rosemary Robins, is also on the federal gene technology ethics committee that regulates modification of plants and animals.

She says: “Health is a very important issue for our society. We value it highly, partly because we’re not too comfortable with death. That then creates the window of acceptability for these new technologies to proceed, and then slowly they become normalised.”

Genetic manipulation to avoid fatal or debilitating disease is already normalised. One opinion poll of eight countries by a Japanese ethics institute found that many people would use safe genetic interventions to enhance the physical or mental attributes of their children. Israelis were the least accepting (22 per cent) and Thais the most attracted (83 per cent). Americans fell in the middle (43 per cent).

Between 62 and 91 per cent of people surveyed would use gene therapy to keep a child of theirs from inheriting a disease like diabetes, and even more (80 to 96 per cent) would use it to prevent fatal diseases.

Compassion softens resistance even to ideas that at first sound macabre. The news of England’s first “sperm widow”, Diane Blood, caused a public outcry until Blood went public. When ordinary Britons saw this pleasant, grieving widow arguing an emotional case in the face of her huge loss, they swung behind her. Opposition to early IVF eased as headlines about “babies in freezers” gave way to newspaper happy-snaps of real babies in arms.

Today, ethicists have raised concerns that new techniques breach the ancient taboo against bestiality. How do you feel about the idea of infertile men’s sperm being “cooked” in rat’s testicles? IVF specialist McBain sees it as a triumph. “We’re trying to cook female eggs in mouse kidneys. I won an international prize for this work. It’s brilliant.”

Ikky? Would you ban it? Then you have just blocked an avenue of hope for young women made infertile by life-saving cancer treatment. McBain is trying to work out how to remove ovarian tissue and grow eggs from it so that such women can still have their own babies.

The final frontier is meant to be reproductive cloning. It has been banned by the Council of Europe, condemned by Unesco and the US president, and is regarded with repugnance by most IVF practitioners.

McBain says “I think that our work is to parallel the normal but failed reproductive process, where a new and unique person can be conceived and given the chance for growth,” he says. “I think cloning, which repeats the DNA of someone who has already lived a life, is wrong for that reason.”

But compassion, in the end, will drive public acceptance even of cloning, Robins predicts. She says students become sympathetic when asked to consider the case of the couple who want to clone their dead or dying only child. “Feeling for the loss of that family is the thing that will allow the decision to go through an ethics committee, say. After all, most of these decisions get made on a case-by-case basis.”

A Melbourne expert in IVF issues, who does not wish to be named, predicts reproductive cloning will largely be driven by infertile men who want offspring who share their genes. “Many men whose partners use donor sperm have (psychological) difficulties with it afterwards. If women use donor eggs, they are still an intimate part of the process, but for men, donor sperm is a very different experience.”

Savulescu says he sees no justification for cloning but he does not think cloning should be banned. “Who is harmed by it? How would it be bad for the child? This blanket revulsion for cloning is based on stereotypes like The Boys from Brazil . . . It might be very valuable to have a parent who has done a trial run of your life, who has some idea of your diseases, your talents and your weaknesses.”

Where, then, will it all end?

God might know but people certainly don’t. In a modern, pluralistic society there is no consensus even on where it should end. Nor is there clarity about what processes society should employ in dealing with these questions – moral education, or legislation? – or which aspects of decision-making should be private and which communal.

Not only are there differences in the views between people, there are contradictions within individuals. Arlette Schweitzer, America’s first grandmother surrogate, is a committed Catholic deeply troubled by commercial surrogacy, which she says is “borrowing the actual makings of a baby from other people”. But, writes Stock, she sees what she did for her daughter as different. “I didn’t even consider myself a surrogate. I was just a mother helping her daughter.”

Then there is the US senator who was a vocal opponent of abortion but an early supporter of embryo research – his daughter had juvenile diabetes. It seems the pop song is right: love changes everything.

But there are problems with leaving decisions in the hands of those who have an emotional investment in the outcome. Sometimes informed choices are made for deformed reasons, and if enough people make them, individual choices grow into a social norm.

In India, where boys are valued over girls, a Bombay survey of pregnancy terminations following ultrasound found 7997 out of 8000 aborted foetuses were female. (Australia has a weaker preference in the other direction; sex selection is permitted in New South Wales and, at Sydney IVF, 63 per cent of couples choose females.)

With “germ cell” genetic enhancement, genetic changes to DNA also affect the ova or sperm of the animal. This means the changes will be passed on to future offspring. Fukuyama warns this could embed the social preferences of one generation in future generations, “like a tattoo that (they) can never subsequently remove”.

Robins believes society is “muddling through” issues raised by biotechnology, and that we need to develop a secular humanist ethic to grapple with them. “People making decisions about their reproductive choices find it very hard to do it on their own. They want some help . . . Even in genetic counselling sessions, where the aim is to be non-directive, people often ask, `But what would you do?’ ”

The law is a clumsy tool for dealing with ethical issues, but is it the only way to slow down the biotech revolution while the rest of the community catches up with its implications?
It has been argued that decisions should not be left in the hands of doctors and scientists because of their vested interests in careers and budgets. And science has always had its boundary riders, so fascinated by possibility that they are oblivious to potential harm.

Fukuyama cites a researcher who said it would be scientifically important to produce an ape-human cross, and others who suggested using women as “hosts” for the embryos of chimpanzees or gorillas. One biotechnology company put human DNA into a cow’s egg and grew it into a blastocyst before destroying it. “Chimera”, the lion-goat-dragon creature of Homer’s imagination, may not stay a byword for a wild, unrealistic fancy.

If we fail to set limits on the biotech revolution, Fukuyama envisages two ugly political scenarios.

One is war on the streets as a genetic underclass resists the embedded advantage of genetic aristocrats who could afford to pay for enhancement. The other is state-sponsored eugenics programs to improve the intelligence of strugglers.

Christopher Newell, an ethicist and member of the National Caucus of Disability Consumer Organisations, envisages a third possibility: a world in which imperfection is not tolerated. While biotechnology offers great hope of genetic cures, at present it is mostly used to screen out embryos or foetuses with disabilities, he says.

“The implications are to be found in legal decisions around the world which are starting to talk about notions of `wrongful birth’,” he says.

People are saying, ‘How did you slip through the net and not get aborted?’. . . The notion that certain things are so overwhelming they strip you of inherent worth as a human being is an enormously dangerous, insidious philosophy.”

The one scenario impossible to imagine is that of everyone taking an absolute stand against genetic enhancement. As Stock says: “Most of us would rather be among the first to live an extended lifespan than among the last to live a `natural’ one.”
He believes humanity is looking at the birth of a new age of growth and achievement. “Will we suddenly lose our nerve because of the realisation that life will change forever, and because we can scarcely guess the character of this child of our creation? I hope not.”

He likens human daring with genetic experimentation to Prometheus’ stealing of fire from the gods, an act he calls “characteristically human”. But he fails to mention that Prometheus’ theft was punished by Zeus, who unleashed Pandora’s box of evils upon the world.

Should we brace ourselves?

First published in The Age.

Body language: Robert Winston

NEVER mind the bravura of his lolly-pink shirt. Professor Lord Robert Winston’s trademark ebullience has fizzled into the flatness of jet-lag. It could be a metaphor for the way he views many of modern medicine’s exciting but controversial breakthroughs.

IVF? Overused and the cause of lazy medicine, with doctors now rarely trying to treat the underlying causes of infertility. Donor eggs? The trade in genetic material is morally risky. Gene therapy? Might change what it means to be human.

Winston, a fertility authority best known as the genial, inquiring face of the hit BBC documentary series The Human Body, was in Melbourne last weekend for the Alfred Deakin Lecture series, part of the Federation Festival, speaking on the topic ‘Will
we still be human at the end of the 21st century?’
The short answer is yes. Winston has no doubt that key traits will persist: ‘We will still have the same emotions. We will hate and fear and love as … in the 20th Century. In that sense, we will still be the same as we were 10,000 years ago.’

The question he wants to raise is not about physical or mental evolution so much as human philosophical response to the issues raised by new technologies such as gene therapy.

‘If you alter an individual person’s genetic structure, you alter their children’s structure. If you alter the genome line, you have altered people ever after.

‘I think it’s very problematic. It’s a long way into the future … but we haven’t had the real debate, which is about making transgenic humans; humans who have genes in them that are not actually their own.’

Of particular concern is the temptation, if science makes it possible, to ‘modify our genetics to enhance certain characteristics that we see as valuable: intelligence and strength and grace and beauty and so on. And, if you change the DNA structure to make people more intelligent … you have changed the genome that will be passed on. It will be heritable.

‘You define a species by its genetic make-up. The human species is essentially built into the recipe of its DNA. You change the DNA, you’ve changed the recipe. If you’ve changed the recipe, it’s a different kind of dish.’

If living things are defined by their assemblage of genes as human, chimpanzee, mouse, yeast and tree, and those genes are changed, one has to ask if they would still be human, chimpanzee, mouse and so on, he says.

‘That’s an interesting question because of our central belief that holds the moral structure of our society together, which is that we believe in the sanctity, above all, of human life. We believe in the sanctity of human life mainly because we see ourselves built in the image of God. If we change that image, are we still human? And if we’re not human, how do we view those who are human? Are humans still sacrosanct?

‘When the Nazis destroyed gypsies, Jews and imbeciles in the 1930s, it was because they thought they were subhuman, not truly human. Essentially, it isn’t so different; the difference is they didn’t have the knowledge to understand what we have today.’

The worry is that if we create ‘superhumans’, will they then regard ordinary humans as subhuman?
‘That’s exactly what I’m saying.’
Winston’s concern for human rights underlies his analysis of other hot topics. He supports, for example, lesbian women having access to IVF but not women past menopause using the technique. The latter is ‘morally risky’ because it requires donor eggs, and ‘my impression of most donors is that they wouldn’t out of preference want to give their eggs to a 62-year-old woman’.

But he sees Victoria’s laws banning lesbian access to IVF and artificial insemination as a ‘primitive … legal situation’. Such a stance would have to be based either on religious principles – ‘and everybody’s different religiously’ – or the fear that children would suffer. British research has found that children of lesbian couples do at least as well as children from heterosexual families, he says.

‘It seems to me that legislation that is social essentially should be based on proper evidence, and not to do so is pure prejudice.’

Winston, so affable on screen, can be more caustic when unscripted. When Prince Charles criticised genetically modified food and waxed lyrical about his organically grown vegetables, Winston retorted that HRH ‘is one of the most genetically modified individuals on the planet’.

The paradox still makes Winston laugh.

‘It’s ludicrous to have a diatribe about genetically modified food when the corn that we eat has been genetically modified by selective breeding, which is what the Royal Family’s been doing with arranged marriages for centuries.’

So what does this Labour lord, appointed six years ago by a Conservative government, think of the monarchy?
He finds the question mildly alarming: ‘Oh, my goodness! I’m a Labour peer. I’m not this reincarnation of Stalin, red of tooth and claw and with a pickaxe. I was talking to Princess Anne yesterday. I think they’re rather nice, actually.

‘This isn’t an issue I want to discuss in Australia because you have different views about the Royal Family – quite reasonably because you want, by and large, to re-evaluate your position in the world as a republic. And so you should.

‘For us in Britain, whether you’re Labour or Conservative, the general view is that the monarchy is still a useful political figurehead, which works rather better than a presidency would do. I think the Royal Family hold certain aspects of British tradition together rather well.’

Winston has spent most of his professional life working with life, creating embryos and successfully screening them for genetic defects before implanting them to grow as babies. He has also explored death. In one of his television documentaries, he filmed the natural dying of an old man and used technology to track the disappearance of the last sign of life from his body.

Does Winston, so preoccupied with the big questions, believe in life after death? Again he is startled and a bit irritated.

‘Oh no. God knows. Do I believe …? Does it matter? No journalist’s ever asked me a question like that before. I don’t really have a fear of death except for the things I’ll leave unfinished. Life after death doesn’t really have a meaning for me.’

He continues to muse, off balance at the rare experience of being asked a question to which he has no ready answer.

‘It’s a bit like Lennox Lewis. Lennox Lewis went into the ring not expecting to be knocked out – and he was. And I feel like I’ve been knocked out.’

He roars with laughter, his good humour restored.

First published in The Age.

The quiet evangelist

PROFESSOR Suzanne Cory hadn’t thought she would be a scientist. As a girl she dreamt of becoming a writer, until a hard-headed self-assessment put her right: “I decided I was too ordinary, too middle-class, and I would probably never have the kind of experiences that good literature is made from. And I wasn’t sure that I had the nerve to be exposed to those events anyway.”

Instead, she took that objectivity and turned it to pursuing the cause of cancer. Thirty years on, she has won international acclaim for her scientific discoveries and the directorship of the nation’s biggest and most prestigious medical research institute. She is also in the vanguard of those warning Australia that it must invest more in medical science now or find itself out of the race early next century.

Cory, the director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, has called for the Federal Government to accept the recommendations of the Strategic Review of Health and Medical Research, to be considered by Parliament in the current sitting. The review, chaired by businessman Peter Wills, said federal funding for health and medical research should be doubled and capital gains tax reformed to internationally competitive levels to encourage private investment in science.

Cory is a quietly spoken woman with a gentle manner but an evangelistic zeal. For the first 30 minutes of our interview she talks almost without pause, hammering home the urgency of Australia’s situation and the need to drum up support for Health Minister Michael Wooldridge’s pitch to Cabinet on the issue. Central to her vision is the exploding biotechnology industry and the potential for Melbourne to become a “genome valley” – the biotech equivalent of the IT industry’s “silicon valley”.

Cory argues that Australia will only be able to cope with a projected doubling of health costs by 2015 if it invests in basic research now. She says Australia must explore gene technology and discover medicines and techniques that it can sell internationally if it is to afford future products such as pharmaceuticals that have been developed overseas.

Doubling research funding would create between 10,000 and 15,000 jobs and lure back talented Australians working overseas. Some of the profits from the emerging biotechnology industry could then be ploughed back into research and the wider community.

She believes Australia is well-placed to contribute to what has been called the biologists’ search for the Holy Grail – the Human Genome project – which involves scientists all over the world working to map the 100,000 human genes, as well as the genomes of other key organisms. Once a gene’s role in a disease is understood, scientists should be able to comprehend the molecular basis for the disease – the chemical blueprints – then design medicines accordingly.

The project’s benefits are expected to include improved crops and livestock, more precise diagnostic markers of disease and “smarter” and “more natural” medicines that are, she says, “based on an intelligent appreciation of the pathways inside cells, so you can design a drug that is much more selective for the pathway that’s gone awry in, say, neuro-degenerative disease or cancer.”

“Long-term, we’ll be able to tailor medicine to the individual. We will know a person’s DNA profile. For example, certain families inherit a predisposition to diabetes. It’s a very complex disease due to (the) inheritance of certain versions of probably five or six genes.

“We don’t know what those genes are at the moment, or how they interact, but in the future we probably will. We’ll be able to detect which child in a family has inherited that constellation of genes and so from very early on, the family will know that this child needs certain lifestyle changes in order to prevent the onset of diabetes. That may be (repeated) across a range of diseases.”

Cory has almost always worked with minute elements that can have significant effects on human health. The motto of her discipline, molecular biology, could be, “The devil is in the detail.” Cancer starts with a single cell that goes wrong and much of Cory’s work, with her husband and scientific partner Professor Jerry Adams, has been focused on discovering the cancer devil’s whereabouts at the level of the gene.

Last year Cory shared the Australia Prize for molecular genetics for the discovery that oncogenes – cancer-causing genes – could be activated by genetic accidents in the body’s production of antibodies.

Breakthroughs like that help make a lifetime of painstaking detective work worthwhile. Cory says: “When you have come to an understanding of something important and you are the only one in the world who knows it, for just a few minutes – because of course, you have to publish it – just that moment is wonderfully exciting.

“It’s punctuated by lots of things that don’t work, long hard days at the lab where things go wrong … But understanding how life works is such an exciting voyage of discovery that you can put up with a lot of shipwrecks along the way.”

Cory grew up the eldest of three in a Kew family. Her father was an accountant and her siblings went into music and business; she says she was lured into science “by good teachers, of course … One was a year 9 teacher at Camberwell Girls Secondary School. She just had such an enthusiasm for science that it spilled over and infected you.”
Cory became firmly hooked at university when she learnt about DNA and chromosomes and genes: “Every lecture we heard, this story was unfolding.” She resists the notion that women scientists were unusual back then, pointing out that they’ve always been well represented in the biological sciences.

But when she was working casually at the CSIRO she saw a woman scientist forced to resign because she had married. Cory admits she was lucky to win her scholarship to study at Cambridge: “When I was a student there were very few scholarships at all to go overseas, but almost all of them stipulated men only. And the one I got – I think they forgot to say men only!”

It was at Cambridge that she met her American-born husband. They returned to Australia, had two daughters and worked together until Cory was in effect made his boss when she became director in 1996.

She misses the hands-on science, and the day-to-day working partnership: “It was difficult, in the sense that we’ve always worked as a total pair before … But I think it’s worked out surprisingly well … You can’t have two people being a director.

“I think a lesser man might have had more trouble than Jerry, but he’s an incredible person.”

CORY is surrounded by colleagues who not only admire her, but like her. Her formidable predecessor at the institute, Sir Gustav Nossal, launches into a 10-minute dissertation on her strengths: as a scientist of world renown, as a mentor of the best and brightest students, as a visionary leader who picked the importance of the genome project as the coming wave of world biotechnology. And as a person who would talk as nicely to the tea-lady as she would to the Health Minister.

Says Professor Bob Williamson, director of the Murdoch Institute: “She’s universally respected within the science and medical community for being scrupulously open and honest … She’s not Machiavellian.” He adds drily: “I think it’s possible to overcome those disadvantages if you’re good enough, and Suzanne is good enough.”

At 57, Cory’s professional preoccupations now revolve around ensuring that others get the kind of opportunities that have meant so much to her. She emphasises the need for a strong education system: “I am very worried about the cutbacks to the universities because if the universities aren’t strong, then we’re not going to produce good researchers. I know that at some universities, science enrolments are way down (since the introduction of tertiary fees). Investment in education … is really absolutely fundamental.”

Australia is just holding its own in the brain-drain stakes, she says, with as many foreign scientists arriving as local ones are leaving.

But the situation could become critical if funding does not improve. “The US is doubling its (medical research) expenditure, the UK is committing huge amounts of resources; so are Japan and Korea … If they all start rolling before us, we’ll be playing catch-up.”

First published in The Age.