WEHI Director Professor Doug Hilton on scientific respect

The message below was written by Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) director Professor Doug Hilton and shared with all WEHI staff and students. The message is reproduced here at the request of the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, Professor Shitij Kapur, as a thoughtful and timely reminder to us all of the important role academic freedom and scientific respect play in the pursuit of scientific truth.


To all of my colleagues,

One of the things that I have loved about working at WEHI for nearly 35 years, whether as an undergraduate student in 1986, a PhD student from 1987 through to 1990, a postdoc from 1993 to 1996, a lab head from 1997 to 2005, a Division Head form 2005 to 2009 or as Director for the last 11 years, is that no matter my seniority or the position I have held, if I have mounted a cogent scientific argument I would be afforded respect.

What have these arguments been about? Sometimes they have been about what is the correct approach to tackle a question. Sometimes they have been around technical details of the correct controls. Sometimes they have been about the interpretation of a well-controlled experiment and what it means for a prevailing theory.

One of the arguments I have tried to avoid with other lab heads is about whether an experiment is interesting and the reason for this avoidance is a second that thing I love about WEHI: that we embrace all manner of scientific proclivities. Personally, I love a screen - a well-designed set of experiments that allows nature to tell you what's important. I find this type of research, literally breathtaking … and I mean literally. I remember hearing George Stark talk at MIT about somatic cell genetic screens to dissect interferon signal transduction and my chest actually tightened. Don Metcalf was not such a great fan of screens. He made some cogent, and sometimes impassioned, arguments about why targeted experiments aimed at testing very specific hypotheses were a better approach. Don and I disagreed about many aspects of science, but I deeply respected his view and his right to conduct research in his laboratory in the way that he thought would yield the most interesting results. One of the most empowering moments in my scientific life was the realisation that he reciprocated that feeling.

Every lab head appointed since mid 2009 was appointed by me. Every lab head appointed between 1996 and mid 2009 was appointed by Suzanne Cory. Every lab head between 1965 and 1996 (and there are still lots working actively today) was appointed by Gus Nossal. The reason we appointed these lab heads is that in our hearts and our minds we believed they would bring unique and productive approaches to the research areas on which WEHI focused. One of the attributes that I share with Gus and Suzanne is that we have been able set aside our own scientific preferences and take joy from the approaches of others.

I love Ruth Kluck's pursuit to understand the relationship between Bax and Bak structure and function - I could never work on this myself, but I love the fact she wants to tackle this. I love Gordon Smyth's drive to find better ways to glean insight from genomics data - there are so many reasons I could never do this myself - but I love the fact that this is what Gordon is passionate about. I love Kelly Rogers' focus on squeezing the very best out of microscopes and her willingness to use her skills to illuminate the research of others. I love the perspective that Jason Tye-Din brings to the study of coeliac disease as a clinician and his drive to make the life of his patients a little better each year. I love Phil Hodgkin’s passion for a theory - it is not how I would run my lab - but again, that is the beauty of WEHI.

As director, I will defend the right of laboratory heads to tackle the problems they find most exciting, to follow their scientific curiosity and I will do my best to help provide resources to allow them to pursue those questions. I think it is because of this mantra that I have been so dismayed with the way Marc Pellegrini and Ian Wicks have been treated over the past few months, in response to their vision to coordinate a ‘gold standard’ randomised, double-blinded clinical trial to comprehensively answer the question of whether hydroxychloroquine is effective as pre-exposure prophylaxis for COVID-19. The trial focuses on frontline healthcare workers who we have seen in many countries around the world – and including right here in Melbourne – are at high risk of contracting COVID-19.

My dismay is deep and felt at different levels.

The first is that some scientists have conflated their personal view of the US President with his stance on scientific and medical issues. Let me say from the outset, that while I absolutely respect the right of the American people to elect anyone they like as President, I find Trump odious in so many ways. However, no matter how odious I find him, his view on anything scientific or medical is entirely irrelevant to me. If tomorrow, Donald Trump started espousing a belief in climate change and the importance of intervening decisively to turn around global warming, it would not matter one jot to me. I certainly wouldn't become a climate sceptic; rather, I would judge the matter on its scientific merits. The same is true of any scientific matter. What Donald Trump thinks is utterly irrelevant. I have been astounded how many people – many with medical or scientific training – have berated me for the fact WEHI is doing a trial on hydroxychloroquine. They have asked why WEHI is working on something that Donald Trump has promoted. If I have received this type of correspondence, I can't imagine the hate mail that the scientists running this trial have received. Could you imagine if Donald Trump came out in support of thoughtful bioinformatic analyses of genomic data, or the importance of a high-resolution understanding of Bax/Bak, or why a good theory of the immune system is important ... and there was a scientific backlash against WEHI researchers. I ask you to back-up Marc and Ian, as I hope you would any lab head at WEHI, and as I know I would any one of our lab heads, postdocs or students.

The second reason I have been dismayed is that many of the criticisms have been blind to the facts and, frankly, unscientific. Researchers who should know much better and who should read more deeply before weighing into debates have relied on a superficial reading of studies that anyone with a decent knowledge of the area could see were fatally flawed, or have conflated clinical trials to treat desperately ill patients with pre-exposure trials of the prophylactic effects of hydroxychloroquine on healthy healthcare workers that have been pre-screened to remove those with underlying cardiac issues. This is bad scientific discourse and fails one of the barometers of who should be afforded respect in a scientific debate: respect is afforded to those who engage in "cogent scientific argument". Lazy shots fired via the 280-character cannon of Twitter should not be afforded respect; nor should loaded questions asked under the recreant cloak of anonymity.

Ian Wicks and Marc Pellegrini are open to cogent scientific debate. Engage them in discussion in a respectful manner and I am certain they will reply in a respectful manner because they absolutely embody the things that I have come to love about WEHI.

Like many of us they have used their knowledge and expertise to propose an interesting hypothesis. As Director, I will defend their right to test this hypothesis and, as I do for all 90 or so of our laboratory heads, I will do my best to help them accrue the resources to test their ideas. As with all experiments we are open minded about the outcome. Maybe their clinical trial will add support to the notion that hydroxychloroquine is useful in preventing Sars-CoV-2 infection and subsequently COVID-19 and lead to another larger trial and perhaps save some lives; or, then again, maybe it might won't add support to this hypothesis; or, for technical reasons, like recruitment challenges, it might not provide evidence either way. Provided the trial is pursued with diligence, and carried out ethically and with integrity, I am comfortable with any of those outcomes.

Please look after each other in these challenging times and look after yourselves too.

Professor Douglas Hilton AO FAA FTSE FAHMS

Director, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

Lorenzo and Pamela Galli Chair in Medical Biology

Professor of Medical Biology and Head of Department of Medical Biology
Honorary Principal Fellow, School of BioSciences
University of Melbourne