From Junk DNA to Junk Economics: Beware the Inexorable Sovietization of Big Science

April 3, 2013

By Bill Frezza 

April 3, 2013 | Guest Commentary | The Skeptical Outsider |The controversy surrounding the $400-million Encode project’s dubious public relations claims surrounding the function of ‘junk DNA’ and the Battelle Institute’s defense of the $3-billion Human Genome Project (HGP) as economically beneficial (as cited in the recent State of the Union address) make this a good time to examine President Obama’s attempts to bring more of American science under centralized direction and control.

Well-established and politically connected scientists are salivating over the billions promised by the president for the Brain Activity Map (BAM) project—no surprise there. But young scientists not yet aboard the federal gravy train should recognize this as a threat to their future as independent researchers.

For those not following the backlash to Encode’s well-orchestrated PR campaign, Dan Graur’s article in Genome Biology and Evolution is a must-read, as is his interview on Mendel’s Pod. Defying the code of omerta that protects the interests of the Principal Investigator (PI) guild, Graur accuses project leaders of pimping their project so as to justify their enormous budgets. He also takes serious scientific issue with the way the consortium’s findings have been misrepresented in the media.

This kind of behavior is becoming increasingly common in the world of Big Science as politicians wake up to the electoral benefits of funding new groups of needy and vocal dependents. While the Encode project’s sin was to exaggerate the importance of junk DNA, a May 2011 Battelle Institute report, "Economic Impact of the Human Genome Project," wins the prize for junk economics used to justify such largess.

Claiming that the government’s “investment” in the HGP “created” 310,000 jobs, the Battelle report leaves no stone unturned in its creative accounting totaling up the program’s direct and indirect economic impact. For example, the salaries of researchers working on the HGP were counted both as costs and benefits. And secondary or even tertiary downstream technologies, such as the commercialization of drugs whose development were related in any way to the genetic information revealed by the HGP, were counted, as though their genetic targets hadn’t already been identified, or would never have been identified if not for the HGP.

Apparently the Battelle economists also never read French economist Frédéric Bastiat’s famous essay, “What is Seen and What Is Not Seen,” which points out that all money “invested” by government had to be taken from somewhere else in the economy. Nor do they seem to have noticed that the private money invested in genomics-related projects might have been spent anyway, or directed to something else equally or more productive, had HGP not come along. Crediting all of this “economic activity” to a single act of wise government science “investing” is worthy of Cypriot bankers, not serious scientists. The problem, of course, is conflating activity and progress, or of spending and return. These are not synonymous.

An even bigger problem is the mistaken belief that this can go on forever. The supply of money is not infinite (Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s unrelenting attempts to prove otherwise notwithstanding). Neither is taxpayer generosity: taxpayers can only support so many basic research scientists and only for so long. Over the long run, it is reasonable to expect these publicly supported scientists to produce public benefits commensurate with the cost.

The burden of proof for proposed mega-projects should be high, because for every research team working on a billion-dollar, centrally planned National Institutes of Health program, there are hundreds of independent scientists who will go begging. This is a tragedy, as the bulk of our scientific progress—especially in the life sciences—comes not from sclerotic bureaucracies following 10-year plans, but from the genius of independent scientists challenging the status quo.

To date, only a few critics have challenged the Battelle report’s accounting fictions. Worse, the preposterous claim that, “every $1 of federal HGP investment has contributed to the generation of $141 in the economy” doesn’t even conform to the basic rules of the English language. How many dollars did Hurricane Sandy “generate” in the economy? Did all the economic “activity” and the cleanup jobs “created” make the hurricane economically beneficial? If this is the rationale we’re following, shouldn’t the destruction wrought by Sandy count as a return on our investment in global warming?!

BAM Investment 

Now President Obama is parroting this 140 to 1 “return” figure as justification for spending more billions the government doesn’t have, this time buying votes from institutions that support brain scientists. And let’s not forget the Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s advocates who buy into overheated claims that the BAM project will quickly lead to treatments—claims which a graduate student from Rockefeller University calls a “$3 billion mistake.”

Speaking of treatments, how many diseases has the HGP actually cured? This would be a bona fide “investment return” compared to abstract obfuscations like “economic activity.” We certainly hope the data produced by the HGP will one day contribute to the conquering of disease, but this remains a future prospect. The Battelle report lists Gleevec, Herceptin, Tarceva, and Avastin among the HGP’s accomplishments, but anyone familiar with the history of these drugs knows that the HGP had nothing to do with them. These drugs would have been developed had the massive program never been funded. Yes, Battelle is careful to ascribe their development to the general field of genomics and not to the HGP program itself, a subtlety easily lost on reporters who skim the report. Proving once again that successful public relations narratives rarely rely on nuance. 

As for subtlety, or lack thereof, listen to the words of elder statesman and Nobel Prize winner James Watson, who recently sounded off on how profligate spending on headline-grabbing genomics programs distorts cancer research priorities to the detriment of alternative approaches. Shocking his audience, he opined that, “sequencing genes isn’t proving to be particularly useful in fighting such diseases as cancer,” and that “much of the research being done on the subject is irrelevant.”

So the BAM project marches on. We don’t yet know whether it will survive budget scrutiny, but we do know who some of the beneficiaries will be if it does. One of the project’s architects is Harvard biologist George Church, who some critics consider the carnival barker of the life science community. Church made headlines recently when he was quoted by Der Spiegel advocating the cloning of Neanderthals. This science impresario spits out untested ideas fast enough to make an infinite army of typewriter monkeys envious. Despite his relative lack of credentials as a neuroscientist, it’s perhaps not surprising to find him at the front of the line for this new government handout.

Yes, when it comes to Big Science, you get what we pay for.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily represent those of Bio-IT World.