On June 26, 2000, three famous men — one president, two scientists — made a big announcement at the White House. Two independent teams — one public, one private — had published a first draft of the human genome, or as one of the scientists called it, the “book of life.” It was a feat. It would change the world. It would “revolutionize the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases,” the president said. Everybody was proud.
Ten years later, a journalist at a big newspaper pointed out that, well, no, the $3 billion we spent on the human genome — a dollar for each pair of DNA letters — had not bought us the ability to diagnose, prevent or treat common diseases. The genome had revolutionized basic biology, sure, but done little for human health.
The newspaper article made a lot of scientists angry. (Some of them are still sputtering about it at conferences.) It also launched a broader discussion about science communication and hype. A month ago, I went to a public event at the American Museum of Natural History, in Manhattan, called “The Human Genome and Human Health: Will the Promise Be Fulfilled?” Four experts on genetics, medicine, ethics and law discussed whether the promises of that 2000 announcement would ever come true. The general consensus was that the White House hoopla had raised expectations much too high, inevitably leading to disappointment. Pride goeth before the fall.
As a journalist, I hate hype, and I will never argue that journalists should be anything but skeptical of scientific advancements. But I recently learned that, like all of the Seven Deadly Sins, pride is necessary for survival. So I wonder, does science need hubris?
When the president made all of those grand pronouncements, a lot of people were listening. They heard different messages, and some of these, in retrospect, were tragic. Stock market players heard, Put all of your money into fledgling genomics companies. Some cancer patients must have heard, You’re not going to be sick anymore.
But there are three ways in which I think the hype had a positive impact. First, pharmaceutical industry executives, staring down patent expiration on most of their blockbuster drugs, seized on the genomics approach. From 2000 to 2010, they increased their research and development budgets by more than 50 percent, to some $68 billion a year. And though it’s true that only a handful of drugs target genomic glitches, many more may be on the way.
Second, the hype reassured Congress that investing in science is a smart idea. The government has continued to pour money into biomedical research, even when money is tight. Take a look at the number of projects and the total amount of funding for the National Human Genome Research Institute, which is only one of the mechanisms through which the government invests in genomics. (Funding data wasn’t available for 1994-1999.)
Of course, I can’t say for sure that it was the hype that maintained the funding. But it sure didn’t hurt. Even now, with the U.S. federal budget in disarray, funding for the National Institutes of Health seems relatively secure.
The last benefit is more difficult to pin down. Presidents don’t get behind science often, and when they do, people sit up and take note. What is this DNA stuff, anyway? What’s a knock-out mouse? Should I get my genome decoded? What would the public’s general knowledge of genetics — hell, of biology — look like today if that one president and two scientists had received the human genome news with humility?
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