genome project

Lab320 at Frodo.MGH.Harvard.EDU
Tue Feb 12 21:43:59 EST 1991

In article <9102121616.AA03441 at> 
gribskov at FCRFV1.NCIFCRF.GOV ("Gribskov, Michael") writes:
> I am glad to see that this discussion has, for the most part, returned 
> to rational debate.

Sorry, I'll try to work on this.

> Dr. Ellingtons's objections to the genome project 
> seem to me to fall into 3 categories: financial, systematic, and 
> scientific.

Actually, I didn't realize my thoughts were that coherent.  Many thanks.
Let me dig my ditch just a little deeper:

1. Financial--Genome Proponents often suggest that the money is
not being stolen from the NIH general program.  Even were this
true, I see two problems, based on the supposition that the Genome
Initiative is "science:"
   (a) Assume, if you will, that there was an "Easter Egg Initiative"
in which a number of researchers were trained to dye eggs.  This
money was sacrosanct, and grants would only be considered if they
related to the general area of egg coloration.  Can you not see why
there would be a hue (heh) and cry from the scientific community
over these funds, even if they wouldn't be turned directly back to 
other science? Wasted money for bad science is wasted money that
does not reflect well on good science. (This is not meant to be as 
flippant as it sounds; I am trying to convey my  position, not my ire.
Kee-rist, maybe I will start to use the loathesome smiley.)

   (b) In the coming years, as we all pay the costs of the S&L bailout,
the Iraq war, and a general decline in the American Empire, tax
money is going to become very, very scarce.  Most Congresspeople
are going to look at the TOTAL allotment of moneys for science,
and are not going to worry about niceties like Genome Initiative
vs. NIH general fund.  The privileged position of the Genome
Initiative will necessarily make fewer funds available for grants
that are, in effect, all competing against each other.  If the
Genome Initiative is a good thing, let it compete for money with
the projects it purports to do (see other of my communiques for
2. Systematic (what in the world do I mean by that?) --

> Few if any 
>  grants describe a problem that can't be tackled by other means.  Most
>  merely continue an existing line of inquiry and do not open up new 
>  ones.

But almost all grants have a defined goal.  Writing a grant that in effect
says, "Let me do this and I'm sure I'll learn something.  Really." is the
kiss of death.

My point is this:  (a) Most justifications that have been aired in this 
forum for the Genome Initiative can clearly (IMO) be done more effciently
with a directed approach.  (b) No justifications have been provided that 
the Genome Initiative will open up *new* lines of research.  And (c) vague 
justifications that suggest that "there's something out there" wouldn't 
stand up to scrutiny by the folks that hand out the money.

3. Scientific--note that Dr. Gribskov doesn't actually answer the points he
takes the pains to restate in the intro to this section.  He merely points 
out that we will learn a great deal from sequencing other genomes, a point 
I have already agreed on.  

However, other genomes cannot be used to 'bootstrap' our way to sequencing
the human genome.  Junk is still junk.  Waste is still waste.  In fact, 
once we have all those lovely homologous sequences, why bother with 
sequencing the human genome:  that's what hybridization and PCR are for,

As for the rejoinder about "how do we know it's junk until we sequence it 
all?" I can only reply that we seem to be doing a bang-up job of figuring 
out the junk we already got without sequencing the human genome.  With 
self-splicing introns being a good example.  We got lots of junk and
very few insights.  More thinking, less sequencing!  

How much good science will flow from this waste?  Some.  How much good 
science will be sacrificed to this waste?  Lots. 

> One of my main worries is
> that it is being heavily oversold to congress as a panacaea for human
> disease.  This may ultimately result in a painful congressional 
> backlash.

I would imagine it horrifies Dr. Gribskov to see that we are in synchrony.
See another of my annoying replies for details. 

> The actual sequencing of genomes is still five years or more down the
>    road and we will be in a much better position to judge the value of 
>    the project in a few years.

This is the true horror.  Once we are on the path to perfidy, there is no
stopping.  Can you imagine sequencing 10% of the human genome and calling
it quits?  No way!  We will spend 5x more money to get the rest (hey, I 
give the sequencing technologists some credit).  And, more importantly, 
there will be 600 young researchers whose meat and potatoes are coming 
from the project.  Why?  Because that's what we trained them to do!

Believe it or don't, I agree with all the interim goals of the Genome 
Project. This is important science that should be done:  but not as 
the tip of a very slippery slide into the accumulation of bags of 
silly data.  Let these projects compete in the normal grant pool:  
if they are worthy they will be funded and science will be better off.  
If not, at least we won't have the built-in impetus to clone and 
sequence random DNA for no good reason.

> The technique of ridiculing a project (by comparison to phlogiston or
> N-Rays) would seem to indicate a lack of real arguments.

No, it indicates a superabundance of bad humor.  And besides, didn't you 
just go to the trouble of reiterating all my arguments, good or not?


(I see that I have begun to repeat myself, which means that we have
just about exhausted this cycle of argumentation.  We will all go
quiescent soon; I bid you adieu.)


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