In Memorium: Paul Berg (1926 – 2023) Nobel Laureate and Policy Leader

My dear friend and colleague, Dr. Paul Berg, passed away peacefully at his home on February 15, 2023. Four months shy of his 97th birthday, his mind was as sharp as ever. Much will be written about Paul’s 1980 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on recombinant DNA. Paul was also well known for his efforts to bring scientists together to discuss the potential dangers of new technologies including recombinant DNA, stem cells and CRISPR, and to craft policies to enable use of such new technologies both safely and responsibly. But many may not know how proud he was to be a member of the American Society for Cell Biology.

I first came to know Paul as a department colleague in 1986, when I was hired at Stanford. In 1994, as a new member of the ASCB Council, I convinced Paul to serve on ASCB’s Public Policy Committee. At the time, he didn’t know much about ASCB but he learned quickly that ASCB is very serious about science advocacy and public policy. Paul went on to serve as the ASCB Public Policy Committee’s Chair from 1995 – 2003. In 2003 he received the annual award for volunteer advocate for medical research by Research!America, a national non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to building public appreciation for medical and health research. Nominated for this distinction by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), he was known on Capitol Hill as a scientist who could explain the science very effectively, to help them understand complex issues such as recombinant DNA and stem cell research. 

Elizabeth Marincola (ASCB Executive Director from 1991-2005) wrote, “The cloning of Dolly the Sheep in 1996 sparked a global reaction that ranged from considered concern to hysteria. An outcome was the introduction of S. 245, The Human Cloning Prohibition Act, by Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS). Paul, as Chairman of the ASCB Public Policy Committee, stepped into the breach on behalf of science. With his impeccable credentials, his calm, confident and charming demeanor, and the respect of politicians from every corner of the political landscape, he served as the defacto voice of reason on the issue. In his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Paul eloquently explained the distinctions between the cloning of cells and the cloning of whole organisms, and between adult cells and somatic cells. He also – clearly, forcefully and without patronizing his audience – outlined the potential unintended consequences of passing the bill, which included limiting national defense against bioterrorism and the use of cloning technologies in forensics, as well as curtailing the creation of new preventions and treatments of disease. The fact that the bill did not pass was in very large part attributable to Paul.”

Kevin Wilson, ASCB’s Vice President of Policy, Governance, and Meetings, will never forget his job interview with Paul. “After significant conversation, Dr. Berg finally dropped his hands on the table and said, “I don’t understand Congress the way you do, and you don’t understand science the way I do. I think we would make a great team.” Kevin recalled the summer of 2001 when the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives announced that the House would take a vote making Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT) research a crime. “On the phone that day with Dr. Berg, I suggested SCNT was too hot of a topic to get in the middle of and that I thought ASCB should be silent on the bill. I remember Dr. Berg asking me one question, “Kevin, what is right for our members?” Of course, the answer was to oppose such an awful bill. I have never forgotten that question and it still serves as the guide to all difficult policy decisions the ASCB Public Policy department makes.”

In 2001, President G.W. Bush allowed the first federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, but only for research that utilized the few cell lines that existed at the time. This restriction was lifted in 2009 by President Obama but during the interim, research creating new cell lines (and equipment to do the work) needed alternative funding sources. Paul worked tirelessly to convince California voters to pass Proposition 71 in 2004 that created the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. The agency, initiated with $3 billion, is a major funder of stem cell research in California and has been a model for funding of biomedical research in other states.

Larry Goldstein (UCSD) wrote, “Paul and I worked closely together for many years on embryonic stem cell and NIH funding policy – visiting Senators, House Members, and their staff, explaining what was true, and what was not. We all owe him a great debt. Paul embodied the best among us. He was logical, thoughtful, and concerned about the future of science and medicine. He taught me the important role of science in government and society that we must not forget.”

In recent years at Stanford, Paul invested enormous effort towards the creation of a new “Berg Scholars” Physician Scientist training program that includes a flexible curriculum that allows medical students to carry out basic research without needing to spend the eight or nine years required for an M.D./Ph.D. dual degree. In his final weeks, he was listening by ZOOM to presentations by current Berg Scholars.

I had the honor and privilege of having Paul as a colleague and friend for over 35 years. After his wife Millie died in 2021, we shared almost weekly lunches and long conversations about everything and anything. He told me that he was most proud of the discoveries that he made with his own hands. But he also cherished the discoveries and the close and enduring relationships he maintained withhis former trainees; he remained proud to the end of their impact on the world.

Paul’s leadership and generosity were an incredibly precious gift to all of us. Paul Berg will be missed.

(See Paul interviewed about science policy advocacy by Larry Goldstein in 2011.)  

About the Author:

Suzanne Pfeffer is a Professor of Biochemistry at Stanford University and served as ASCB President in 2003.