Science and Business in NOVA
The dichotomy of business and science in NOVA interviews of Craig Venter and Celera seems to reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between science and technology and modern society. Although some interviewees argued that the science is more “for science’s sake,” this is a false conception on the purpose of scientific progression.
NOVA’s take is somewhat sensationalized because the cracking of the human genome was a media-tracked issue that gave a palpable feeling of human scientific progress. Has it produced as immediate results as pasteurization or penicillin? While the media struggles to paint a narrative of scientific progress, I think it’s more accurate to say that science is the solving of discrete problems while developing an ongoing understanding of how things work. As much as I’d like to expound science lofty intentions, is it so bad for science to be in the business of making money? If the products of science are making science, it’s only because the science itself is useful. This hardly seems to be a problem.
It easy to judge the views of NOVA interviewees with the benefit of hindsight, but they nevertheless make a number of valid claims about the genome project. Tony White, the chief executive of Celera’s parent company, seems to have an entrepreneurial take on his business. I think there was such an outcry about privatizing this data because the media and the public largely saw this as a humanist venture. Looking into the future, I think standard genome sequences and data like that which deCODE (back in business!) actually produces will be about as common and mundane as other lab samples, whether chemistry compounds or bacteria cultures for experiments. Eric Landers also hits the nail on the head when he talks about making drugs as the most tangible product of genomics—this, along with tracing inheritable diseases, seems to be the most lucrative aspect of the project today.
In a different section of the special they discuss the patenting of the genome, but this was largely a phenomenon of the pre-HGP world when a company had to invest a lot of money to get even a small sequence. Present-day gene sequencers have made the process of patenting individual sequences largely irrelevant.