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Objection #1: Big Biology Is Bad Biology

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Science  16 Feb 2001:
Vol. 291, Issue 5507, pp. 1182
DOI: 10.1126/science.291.5507.1182b

The human genome project was biology's first foray into “big science,” and many scientists abhorred the idea at the outset. Researchers feared that a massive sequencing project would siphon precious dollars from investigator-initiated research, destroying the cottage industry culture of biology in the process. And just as bad, the project didn't even amount to hypothesis-driven science at all. Rather, critics charged, it was no more than a big fishing expedition, a mindless factory project that no scientists in their right minds would join. Were they right?

Not exactly, says David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, who raised some of the early concerns. “One of the things I didn't fully anticipate was the state of progress in automation,” he says. In the mid-1980s, gene sequencing was done by hand. Baltimore and others feared that it would take an army of “worker bees” to carry out sequencing on a genomewide scale. But sequencing machines pioneered by Leroy Hood and colleagues at Caltech changed that equation forever. Today, sequencing is nearly completely automated.

The genome project was still a fishing expedition, of course. But the enormous haul of genomic data it netted has changed most minds about such “discovery” research. This once-maligned type of research has enabled teams around the world to explore newfound genes and their links to health and disease. “Discovery science has absolutely revolutionized biology,” says Hood, now director of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, Washington. “It's given us new tools for doing hypothesis-driven research,” maintains Hood, and these tools help rather than hinder individual investigators.

The biggest objection to the audacious proposal was that funding for the genome project would come at the expense of other quality science. “There was a worry that it was a zero-sum game,” says Maynard Olson, a genome center leader at the University of Washington, Seattle. “Frankly, it was a gamble that we'd be able to expand the pie [of research dollars].” But the gamble paid off. In a 1998 National Research Council report, a committee led by Bruce Alberts, a former professor at the University of California, San Francisco, recommended that the human genome project be funded separately from traditional science budgets. And Congress happily went along, giving the Department of Energy $10.7 million and the National Institutes of Health $17.2 million for the new project in fiscal year 1988.

By voicing the early concerns, “I think we did what we hoped we would do,” says Baltimore. “It helped develop a debate, which set us on a productive course.”

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