By John Dodge
April 15, 2003 | Francis Collins’ “pet peeves” come as no surprise given his exhaustive agenda for the next generation of genomic sequencing, research, and analysis, as spelled out in his keynote address.
Probably the single most influential voice in charting the course of genomic research, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) said his pet peeves are any notion that we have entered the “post-genome” or “post-sequencing” era.
“That’s a bit of an overstatement. We’ve been in the pre-genome era for all of human history. On April 14, we will finally have our genome,” he said, referring to the date of the official declaration of the conclusion of the Human Genome Project. “We ought to put the nix on post-genomics. Otherwise, we may fool ourselves that we know more about our genome than we do.”
In his presentation, aptly entitled “DNA at 50: You’re not getting older. You’re getting better,” Collins outlined four follow-on initiatives to the genome project already under way. That was followed by a lengthy list of priorities as a way of translating the benefits and concerns of genomics to the public (see NHGRI Gets Its House in Order).
“We need to have clear and compelling answers across many different areas of genome research for this question, ‘What’s next?’ This is different than the five-year plans we have been putting forward about the genome [project], which were focused on achieving milestones. That’s done. Now we have a chance to think even more broadly,” he said, admitting that the new agenda could be characterized as “overambitious.”
NHGRI regularly set five-year plans during the Human Genome Project but now must grapple with the recession, a stingier Congress, and defining a new mission now that the genome is completed. President Bush has proposed a meager 1.8 percent increase in the National Institutes of Health’s FY2004 budget versus a 16.1 percent jump the previous year. However, that includes raising NHGRI’s funding from $457 million to $478 million—almost 9.5 percent—a slightly bigger increase from the year before.
“I’m very concerned about going from 10 percent [annual increases for the past four years] to something that barely will keep up with inflation. We don’t want to sound like spoiled brats, [but] it’s a different climate now,” he said in an interview after his presentation. “it’s really up to the leaders in Congress.”
NHGRI and the research community will mark the completion of the genome project after 13 years of effort—along with the 50th anniversary of the double helix discovery by James Watson and Francis Crick—by hosting a public symposium at the NIH and at the National Museum of History. April 25 has been declared National DNA Day, with a thousand geneticists volunteering to speak about the genome era at schools. The centerpiece of the day will be a webcast of Collins and Watson discussing the discovery’s significance.
Collins will have a more personal reason to celebrate: April 2003 is the 10th anniversary of his decision to direct the Human Genome Project, taking over from Watson.