How the Human Genome Project Mastered the Art of Big Science

What Have We Learned?
Oct. 11 2013 9:45 AM

The Big Sell

What ambitious scientists can learn from the Human Genome Project.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

The Human Genome Project pulled off a remarkable feat: selling big, expensive, serious science to politicians and the public. Here’s how to do it—or not.

In his State of the Union address in February, President Obama made a nod to an emerging federal science project with an incredibly lofty goal: to understand how the brain works.

Obama’s oblique mention, delivered before the project was announced—“Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s”—spurred a suggestive tweet from the leader of the National Institutes of Health and a barrage of questions and speculations from the scientific community.

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Big budgets ($300 million a year for 10 years) and big goals (measuring every spike from every neuron in the brain) were thrown out in the press. As the New York Times described it a few days after the State of the Union, the project was “seeking to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics.”

That goal, however appealing, is not going to happen. It probably never had a chance of happening. And that’s not such a bad thing.

From the get-go, many neuroscientists were skeptical of the brain project. "Based on my conversations, there is great concern in the neuroscience community that this sounds like a big central planning project that will take resources away from creative work,” Cornelia Bargmann told Science in February. Partha Mitra warned against “irrational exuberance” and vague goals. Jason Pipkin wrote that the project would be undone by its own hype: “It's promising something it fundamentally can't deliver in any reasonable time frame.” Scientists who don’t study the brain were even more outraged.

The critics made an impression, apparently. By the time Obama officially announced this “next great American project,” in a 12-minute speech in April, its scope had narrowed to technology development, with a relatively modest budget of $110 million for 2014. Last month the NIH released a proposal for its contribution to the project, dubbed Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN. With nine specific aims—such as “integrate theory, modeling, statistics, and computation with experimentation,” “develop a suite of tools for circuit manipulation,” and “delineate mechanisms underlying human imaging technologies”—BRAIN seems to have gained scientific credibility, but at the expense of any mass-market appeal.

Don’t get me wrong—these are wonderful goals. I would be delighted if my tax dollars went toward any of these broad research areas. But I’m doubtful that this brain project, at least in its current packaging, will receive funding anywhere near the level its backers are hoping for.

BRAIN has fallen victim to the fundamental tension behind every Big Science project. The buyers—government agencies, controlled by politicians and ultimately the public—want a specific, sexy problem to rally around. They want to cure cancer or get to the moon or understand the human brain—and they want to do it now.

But the sellers—the scientists—are usually too scrupulous. They know their buyers have unrealistic expectations, at least in the short term, and they don’t want to sell them a bill of goods. On the other hand, if the scientists don’t market their products, their work won’t be funded.

It’s a difficult situation made even more difficult by today’s political climate, in which (pardon the strained metaphor) a few belligerent buyers are refusing to pay off their credit cards and barricading all of the sellers’ storefronts.

It wasn’t so long ago, though, that the leaders of the Human Genome Project pitched the American public a sweeping, $3 billion science product. And we not only bought it, but have come back for more and more. How’d they do that?

Lesson No. 1: Make government allies.

Like BRAIN, the HGP was a hard sell among scientists. The first organized discussion of the project happened in May 1985, at an intimate weekend workshop at the University of California–Santa Cruz. Twelve prominent scientists were there; half were in favor, and half thought it was a terrible idea.

The critics had several objections, according to a recent commentary written by genetics pioneers Leroy Hood and Lee Rowen. A big federal project, some critics worried, would mean less money for “real” biological science performed in the laboratories of individual investigators. Others thought the project wasn’t worth doing, or that it was so tedious that no talented scientist would ever sign up to do it. For the first several years after the workshop, “perhaps 80 percent of biologists were against it,” Hood and Rowen write.

But Congress quite liked the idea. “Those in Congress understood the appeal of international competitiveness in biology and medicine, the potential for industrial spin-offs and economic benefits, and the potential for more effective approaches to dealing with disease,” according to Hood and Rowen.

The Department of Energy was also eager to sign on, in part because it wanted to learn about how radiation causes genetic mutations. The agency’s lobbying helped convince everybody else. In 1990 the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health officially launched the HGP with an anticipated $3 billion budget—$200 million per year for 15 years.

BRAIN seems to have heard this first lesson loud and clear—it couldn’t have had a more prominent political placement, after all, than the State of the Union address. And it wasn’t just the president on board. “Mapping the human brain is exactly the type of research we should be funding,” Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in a statement.

But a Big Science project needs more than a few loud voices in Washington. Those politicians need a simple and specific pitch to proclaim from their soapboxes.

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