n the middle 1800s, numerous European adventurers sallied forth into the wild and largely unknown regions of the world, to see what they could find. There were many such collectors, but two of the most famous were Henry Bates (in whose honor Batesian mimicry for selective advantage of protective coloration was named) and Alfred Wallace (after whom the theory of evolution was not named but should have been at least co-named). They slogged through the Amazon basin, and (in Wallace's case) the islands of what is now Indonesia.
They were 'naturalists', collecting and studying the diversity of exotic (to Europeans) animal species of these tropical wonderlands. Their purpose was mixed but an important aspect was that they supported themselves and their expeditions by sending home trophy species to sell to the wealthy to show off in their parlors and impress their friends. We often think of them now as 'beetle collectors'.
This is rather like the 10,000 vertebrate genome project being proposed by a large consortium of modern beetle collectors (Genome 10K, they're calling it). The idea is to sequence the genomes of 10,000 vertebrate species. The cost of sequencing a genome is dropping and is promised soon to be around $1000. Thus, this project can be done for a mere $10 billion! Compared to landing on the moon, making another nuclear submarine, or who knows how many other mega-projects, it seems cheap, almost a bargain, and well within the routine claims that sciences are making of the public honey-pot.
Not so fast! For starters, this is only the foot in the door. Once these sequences are done, there will inevitably follow an open-ended demand for persons to stuff, curate, and protect the specimens, for gear and programmers to house them in the Museum of Natural Genomes.
So is this proposal one that should be given priority? It is certainly a legitimate scientific objective. But such proposals are becoming the routine thinking of Big Science, with very little expressed concern for the actual likely impact of the research, much less what else could be done with the same resources. We can't know for sure, and much will of course be learned, even including some surprising or even important facts here and there. But is it likely that such data will truly transform any thinking we already can do, or could do with only, say, 100 more sequences, targeted to specific problems? After all, we already know a lot about cows and dogs and salamanders. What is the sequence (of single individuals, deprived of phenotype data) going to tell us? After all, beetles are beetles.
It may seem that we're once again just being cranks and moaning about the state of the scientific world. But think about this: Just the entry fee of $10 billion alone could fund 10,000 million-dollar grants to do more focused, question-driven science. Or 100,000 $100,000 grants. That's a lot of real questions, and a lot of investigators (with careers of their own to worry about) who would be funded but won't be if the neo-beetles are collected. And the proliferation of opportunities would continue because there would be no demand for unending Museum maintenance expenses.
There is, of course, another very big difference between today and the glory days of Wallace and Bates canoeing upriver with their butterfly nets. In those days, vain wealthy people were paying the tab. Now, it's still feathering the scientists' nests, but it's with our money as taxpayers, and given all the lobbying and maneuvering, we don't really have a say in the science that gets done. This is a rather big change.
Maybe the proposers of the 10K vertebrate genome project feel like they're small potatoes compared the already presumptuous 100,000 human genomes project. And you know very well that insect and plant people will see the precedent, and we'll have the 10,000 Weed and Crop project, the 10,000,000 insect genome project (barely scratching the surface), and sea urchins will be next.
After all, if what you have to do to be a red-blooded American is simply propose more and more and more (and bigger), then where's the limit? (It's not the sky, as NASA's proposals clearly show)
So, we suggest a stunning precedent that would recognize some societal responsibility. Instead of more-more-more, how about those proposing the 10K vertebrate genome project saying, in a civic-minded way, that this is clearly scientific back-burner material of no urgency, and should wait until the $99.99 genome and automatic annotation and data-maintenance systems that don't t require endless additional funding to handle the additional data.
What? Wait a whole decade before we can see the South Assetia Leaping Mudwort's sequence? Yes. Because sequencing costs will surely come down. If by then we really still need to do our DNA-collecting, we'll be able to. Or maybe the novelty will have worn off, and we'll have other things on our minds.
But putting things in perspective, we should admit that our favorites are those big ones with the huge curved jaws and iridescent green carapace. Now they were really worth the effort!