Science is one of the greatest cultural achievements of humankind. And yet — although we assiduously preserve the preparatory sketches of artists, the drafts of novelists and the manuscript scores of composers — there is little systematic preservation of the workings of scientists. This is certainly regrettable for historical studies of modern experimental biology. Since the discovery of the double helix in 1953, biological research has flourished at an ever-increasing pace and many basic insights continue to emerge. Our knowledge of the workings of organisms from all branches of life is increasing at an unprecedented rate, making it imperative that we document the history of these discoveries.
Most recently, the computational analysis of the completely sequenced genomes of many organisms are driving research and guiding experiments. A new generation of tools such as microarrays, advanced imaging systems and single-molecule techniques are fundamentally changing experimental protocols. Where are the original notes, and the patent and manuscript drafts that accompanied these stupendous advances? Nowadays, these are recorded in ephemeral electronic media that are far too easily lost with the push of a button or the failure of a hard drive. Yet historians need all forms of data about the workings of scientists so that they can document the development of today's innovations and inspire future generations to pursue similar lofty goals in science.
Along with these advances in academic science, the new industry of biotechnology came into being. Many of the scientists who led advances in the laboratory were instrumental in establishing biotechnology as a central discipline. Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists also played an important role, recognizing how research in academia could be applied for the benefit of society. Their records, too, will throw an important light on scientific history.
Fortunately, there is increasing interest among historians of science and institutional archives in preserving this history. Top-notch institutions across the United States are establishing archival collections related to the history of molecular biology and chemistry. Taking a lead in this endeavour is Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which has recently expanded its library and archives by establishing the Genentech Center for the History of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (see http://library.cshl.edu/GCHMBB/index.html). This is funded through the generosity of the pioneer biotechnology company, Genentech. Several important collections, including Jim Watson's and S. B.'s personal papers, are already in the archives or pledged for the future.
We encourage all who have played a part in the developments of molecular biology and biotechnology over the past 50 years, and who are continuing this remarkable journey into the future, to preserve their papers and donate them to institutions that are committed to making them freely accessible to scholars. Let's not wait until memories have faded and papers been discarded at the end of a career before deciding to save our heritage. Future historians of science and social science should not have to look back and wonder how it was possible that we discarded the records of our lives in science.
About this article