Too Little Spent on the Human Genome Project?

I’ve got a lot of responses, pro and con, to my previous post on the Human Genome Project. I appreciate them all. But I just came across one (hat tip to Warren in the comments) that I find interesting. Mike “the mad biologist” writes in his post with a great title The Human Genome Project: What Happens When You Do Budget-Limited Science (or You Get What You Pay For):

Far too expensive. When budgets are limited, you’re forced to generate the data that is easier to get–and cheaper. So when Mandel describes the HGP as an economic flop so far–and he would be inclined to do so since he is interested “the innovation shortfall”–he fails to understand that we didn’t invest in the HGP adequately. Seriously, compare the $3 billion for the HGP to the billions in tax breaks companies get every year for R&D. Or inflation-adjust the Manhattan Project. Let’s not even talk about the Marine Corps’ Osprey program. By comparison, the HGP was done on the cheap.

Now there’s an interesting thought.  I’ve been going on the assumption that we were spending as fast as the science could absorb the money, but is it possible that we spent too little? The inflation-adjusted cost of the Manhattan project looks in the $22 billion range (Wikipedia number, which I rechecked).


  1. CompEng says:

    That’s always a risk with research, but who’s going to pay more unless they see a line to results?

  2. The Manhattan Project was more engineering than research. It built the reactor and bomb making industry. The HGP at most advanced the gene reading device industry. The synthetic life industry has barely started. Nor may this be the best investment we can make. Most of our potential customers are considerably poorer than us where human life is cheap. Where it can help feed, clothe, and provide abundant energy to them stands a better chance of capitalizing on it.

    There is a simple example that shows how unrealistic expectations were for the HGP. The genome of the AIDS virus has been known for 25 years and all we have are some treatments. That is the pace we can expect.

  3. I believe that it was more than a century ago that England became fearful that it was facing coal supplies inadequate to sustain its economy. Serious solar research and development ensued. Then the coal threat was addressed, and the interest in solar quickly died.

    That did not mean that solar held no promise — it simply meant that in the context of the times, it was not able to achieve the happy convergence of those elements that are necessary for a technology to become an economic force. Identify those elements in a broader sense, and one would surely have the formula for technological ignition of an economy.

    Had England persisted in funding solar research, or artificially pushing it into the society, the world might be dramatically different today, or not, but they didn’t. Governments and individuals make such decisions every day, and they are forced to do it with imperfect data and contextual myopia.

    I won’t venture to ponder what are those key elements that give a technology a long life of its own, but I suspect that some of them are missing in the bio-sciences world. Commenter Lord, above, may have touched upon some.

  4. The Fifth Horseman says:


    No, too little was not spent.

    Surely you know that the cost of genome sequencing has fallen far, far faster than Moore’s Law :


  1. […] Michael Mandel asks if insufficient funding is to blame for stunted scientific innovation: “I’ve been going on the assumption that we were spending as fast as the science could absorb the money, but is it possible that we spent too little?” […]

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