Is Big Science Worth It? Debating the Brain Activity Mappping Project

Theral Timpson

The bad boy columnist for the life sciences is at it again. Bill Frezza is an unabashed libertarian venture capitalist based in Boston who pens a regular column over at Bio-IT World called the Skeptical Outsider. Though he’s invested in our industry, he’s undeterred from disparaging things the industry holds sacred, such as the War on Cancer or the Human Genome Project. He is emboldened by two major influences. First, he had some success in the IT industry and sees important lessons there for the life sciences. Second, his son is the CEO at a new life science startup who feeds him the latest from the front lines.

Most of Bill’s gripe has to do with government spending, and last week he took on Obama and the Brain Mapping Project in his article: From Junk DNA to Junk Economics: Beware the Inexorable Sovietization of Big Science. Bill’s a regular guest at Mendelspod. I’m happy to have my basic assumptions challenged regularly by others. It's my job to question. And I give Bio-IT World and their editor-in-chief, Kevin Davies, two thumbs up for encouraging and publishing Bill’s skeptic voice. It’s no surprise to hear a libertarian harping on government spending, but it’s rare from someone inside an industry which has clearly benefited from government largess. Or has it?

When politicians like Sarah Palin question the value of studying the fruit fly “of all things,” we can chalk it up to her ignorance. She isn’t aware of how the study of genetics has unfolded. But when a venture capitalist from our industry questions the NIH, the Human Genome Project, and the War on Cancer, I take a second glance. Recently, when two researchers who are funded by NIH came on the program and denounced big science projects in general, I had Bill’s arguments echoing in my mind.

“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,” Frezza writes.

With the ENCODE project, Bill has some room in his argument. The project has come under deep criticism for their claims--even more exaggerated in the mainstream press--about the amount of the genome that is “functional.” There have been some pissed off researchers who feel the money could have been better spent on smaller projects. Bill does not acknowledge, though, that there are a great many researchers who value the data generated by the project. Even Michael Eisen, co-founder of PLoS who warned of the sovietization of science in his interview here at Mendelspod, acknowledged the importance of the data generated. Bill doesn’t acknowledge either the response from Ross Hardison, an ENCODE collaborator. In our interview, Hardison said he is an independent researcher living off IRB’s just as Eisen and Graur, the author of the most biting critique. According to Hardison, it doesn’t matter whether you call it Big or Small Science. Either way it funds his basic research.

To fortify his attack on Big Science, Frezza goes after the big meat and questions Obama’s SOTU assertion that the HGP generated $141 for every $1 spent. Digging up the Battelle Institute’s report, Economic Impact of the Human Genome Project,” Frezza takes aim with claims such as those that the HGP created 310,000 jobs and led to the commercialization of important drugs.

“... [T]he 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.”

I’ll go with Bill and question the objectivity of the Battelle report which was funded after all by Life Technologies. I even read the economics essay by the nineteenth century French economist (have you ever heard of Frederic Bastiat?) that Bill recommends in his article. But this game of let’s question the worth of the HGP is a high wire act. Bill is unable to offer any competing studies or claims to the contrary. Questions are easier to come by here than facts.

(This, by the way, is also the weakness of the antiquated sounding French essay. Saying that any tax dollar (or franc) spent by a government is a dollar not spent by the tax payer is banal. It’s not difficult to understand that the government, with a bigger war chest, can tackle larger projects than private industry. Nor are all projects equal. The simple hypothetical case repeated in Bastiat’s essay of taxpayers spending a franc on shoes rather than taxes does little to address the question of whether private investment can have the same long term vision that national projects can. It’s an oversimplification that the essay never surpasses. I have other problems with the essay, but I’ll save them for another day.)

I admit that I was a bit chagrined when Obama touted the $141 to $1 figure. But not for the reason Frezza cites. I ask Frezza: does he believe the HGP was unprofitable? Let’s say the Battelle report was outlandish and the number is half that good. Or one third. Francis Collins uses a more conservative claim that every $1 spent at the NIH generates $2.21 in economic output within one year.

I understand why Obama mentioned these numbers. He’s appealing to Republicans and economic conservatives. Through money. And similar arguments have been made about other projects, such as the clear link between NASA’s early space missions and the development of the integrated circuit and indirectly to the personal computer revolution. But is it not viable to ask about the non-monetary value of large projects such as landing a man on the moon or sequencing the human genome? When Obama goes down the economic return road, is he shorting the project? When Mary Lasker, the health philanthropist teamed up with an oncologist, Dr. Farber, back in the 60’s and 70’s and lobbied to get the National Cancer Act passed, it wasn’t through monetary arguments alone. When Nixon signed the Act, he did so with some caution, “[w]e would not want to raise false hopes by simply the signing of an Act.” There was an obvious understanding that we don’t know for sure where such an investment will lead, but it’s worth the try.

I wasn’t around when Neil Armstrong took his small step and giant leap. I can imagine, though, the faces of the kids who watched it on television. How can you measure the worth of that in dollars? When the Human Genome Project was completed, Science Magazine printed the entire genome in an insert. I took it out and hung it on my wall. My genome looked something like that. I like the title of the recent book about sequencing by Misha Angrist, Here Is a Human Being. Here. Right here on my wall is a real picture of what it is to be human. Do we yet know where such a map will lead? Do we know how to evaluate the profound existential confirmation such a physical readout lends to humanity’s current generation? Not to mention the promise of finding difficult answers to disease, overpopulation, and a damaged planet? Some things are more important than buying shoes.

Frezza tends to be provocative just for the sake of provoking. This undermines his more valid points. For example, he asks whether because we put money into cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy “destruction wrought by Sandy can’t count as a return on our investment in global warming?!” He also takes aim at Harvard biologist George Church, doubting the successful researcher’s credentials for being involved in the BAM poject. Frezza has valid questions that are not advanced by furthering the recent misrepresentation of Church’s interview with Der Spiegel that he is “advocating the cloning of Neanderthals.” Church has made clear his point that cloning Neanderthals will be scientifically possible soon, and that he has no grant in at the NIH to fund such a project.

Modern PI’s such as Church of Harvard, Ron Davis of Stanford, and former UDub professor, now founder of ISB, Lee Hood, are examples of how government funding has propelled the profitable commercialization of research and the advancement of an industry. There are few life science companies not directly affected by their work. (Xconomy biotech editor, Luke Timmerman, stopped by Church’s office last week and and offers another view about why Church is involved in the BAM project.) I unabashedly admit I drink Dr. Collin’s KoolAid when he says this is the century of biology. Of all government dollars to bet against, and the NIH fraction is minute, do we really want to be shorting these precious coins?