How not to evaluate a big science program

Nicholas Wade of the NY Times has written one of those stories that make biologists cringe — it just gets so much wrong. It’s a look back at the human genome project, and I was turned off at the first paragraph. The HGP was badly marketed from the very beginning in the sense that there was a misrepresentation of the scientific goals; it was well-marketed if your goal was wringing money out of congress. Unfortunately, now we’ve got to deal with science writers complaining that nobody has generated any miracle cures from all that work. Pay attention to what Harold Varmus said:

“Genomics is a way to do science, not medicine,” said Harold Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, who in July will become the director of the National Cancer Institute.

The genome is a basic research tool, not a recipe book for curing diseases. I can’t entirely blame Wade for complaining about this, though, since some prominent people like Francis Collins were selling the HGP as the first step in generating a panacea.

But Wade ought to be embarrassed at the rampant linear ladder thinking in his article. Both Jonathan Eisen and Larry Moran take him to task for that — he makes this error-filled statement:

The barely visible roundworm needs 20,000 genes that make proteins, the working parts of cells, whereas humans, apparently so much higher on the evolutionary scale, seem to have only 21,000 protein-coding genes.

Humans aren’t high on the evolutionary scale…there is no evolutionary scale. We aren’t the pinnacle of anything. It’s also weird to see people still expressing astonishment that we “only” have about 20,000 genes. Way, way back in the dim and distant past, when I was a lowly undergraduate in 1977 (AD, I think), my genetics professor, Larry Sandler, lectured to us about how Drosophila was thought to have about 10-15,000 genes and humans might have about twice that…but that when you looked at the C-value paradox (that the quantity of DNA in organisms doesn’t correlate at all well with our perceptions of complexity), it really didn’t mean much, especially since we didn’t (and still don’t) know what most of those genes do. In the early days of the HGP there was a mad flurry of speculation, mostly from people with economic interests in more genes, that there were 100-200,000 genes, but everyone who knew anything about genetics gave those a squinty cynical look.

Apparently, there’s going to be a second article in this series from Wade: “Next: Drug companies stick with genomics but struggle with information overload.” Please. If you want to do a retrospective on the impact of the human genome project, don’t go talking to the drug companies.