Broad Institute and the Future of the Economy

To me,  the long-term success of the U.S. economy is closely connected with biosciences. I was just reading a Boston Globe article on the Broad Institute:

Since its founding in 2003, the Broad has exploded into a major research hub, with a team of 1,500 scientists and staff, deep pockets, and the goal of leveraging mind-boggling amounts of information to understand and abolish some of humanity’s most complicated and seemingly intractable diseases: diabetes, cancer, schizophrenia.

But with big ambitions come big risks. The Broad’s founders have made what amounts to a bet, with hundreds of millions of dollars from government and private donors: that this kind of large-scale biology will be the key to realizing the human genome project’s promise to transform human health and medicine.

There have been indisputable achievements: Broad scientists have found genes underpinning human diseases; have sequenced the genomes of more than 15 mammals, from dogs to horses; and are leaders in an international effort to compile the genomes of 1,000 people.

But even as discoveries raise the public’s hopes that new treatments are near, the research has so far illuminated not an easy path to curing disease, but immense complexity. In most cases, disease genes contribute in only a small way to the risk of illness, and some scientists have begun to question whether the big biology pursued at the Broad and elsewhere is drawing money from traditional research that might be more fruitful.

I simply don’t know the answer here. I’m not even sure of the right question.  The Broad Institute is tackling tough and complex problems head-on with lots of money and new technology, which seems like the right strategy to me.  Has the approach not worked? Is it too soon to tell?  Or is the Broad Institute going to  be like Xerox Parc and Bell Labs–creating a lot of tools for others to use?


  1. I think it’s just too soon to tell. These are some incredibly complex problems to resolve, and it can be especially tricky in the biosciences because of ethical concerns in terms of testing treatments and the like.

  2. Ahem. It seems to me that people who go looking for cures to diseases in the human genome seem to always discover the same thing; diseases of epidemic proportions aren’t caused by bad genes. So looking at those genes which do raise risk factors tell you very little of practical value. None of this should be a very big surprise; if everyone seems to be getting a disease, it probably has very little to do with genes, and whole lot to do with other common factors.

    • I know someone who does data analysis at the Broad and I completely agree. Time after time, the statistical tests show very weak correlation. People need to realize that many causes of cancer are environmental and that the best way to improve public health is to increase funding for the EPA (particularly the Superfund) rather than the NIH.

  3. John Smith says:

    I work in genomics for one of the large sequencing players. I would lie to you if I felt like we were making any kind of dent in disease research. Even a few months later, our genomic firepower is unbelievable and with that we have just discovered how even more complex the genetic is (leave the proteomics, nutragenomics, environment out for now). The challenge in my mind is so big and requires so much money that it would be simply to ask each American to eat less meat, use less sugar and order our kids to exercise… Scientists are now officially guilty of creating a research mafia with little results. I still see large projects where even the sample quality have not been questioned before we sequence them, mismanaged science is a daily occurrence. I laugh at all the poetic scientists who claim they are making a change, my garbage man is making a bigger change…

  4. ezra abrams says:

    I think your blog post, indirectly, reflects the answer.
    why would you, an economist with no training or expertise, blog about the Broad Institute ?
    I think it is because we all really want to see something done about cancer, so we are all very highly motivated to think well of places like the broad.

    The other reason is that fashion an culture shift; in our society, we tend, over the last 200 years or so, to glorify those areas of technology that are making rapid progress. You can see this in the conspicuous gift giving of philanthropists like Eli Broad: quite a number have endowed large bioscience institutes; and I assume this reflects something about our culture: bioscience is prestigious as opera

    (if you have a chance to go to cambridge MA, and stand in front of the broad, it is really unbelievable: across the street is the brand new Koch center for cancer research, MIT; next to broad is the whitehead institute,next to whitehead is picower and amgen; and these are all big buildings, chockfull of people and money and equipment – and within a five minute walk are quite a few more buildings; it must be one of the most impressive concnetrations of scientific talent the world has ever seen)
    I was told tht the Broad had to expend, because New England electric couldn’t bring more power into their building – they had maxed out the grid !!

    And the progress in bioscience is unbelievable.
    Just to give an example: we all have an idea that DNA is the genetic material.
    The human genome is ~3 X 10^9 bp (roughly…ignoring heterozygosity, cis/trans effects, maternal imprinting, etc etc)
    Back in the 1970s, we could seq on the order of 10 basepairs/scientist/year – and not any DNA; we could only sequence certain DNAs that had special biology.
    In the late 1980s, after the work of F Sanger/UK and W Gilbert/US, we could sequence a few thousand bp/person/year, if you were really hardworking.
    Today, a person at the broad could sequence several billion basepairs per year (leaving aside Phred scores,contig assembley, etc)
    so thats incredible progress – maybe even beats moores law, maybe even the curve for harddrives.


  1. […] “Big biology” and the role of biosciences in the US economy.  (Mandel on Innovation) […]

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