Thursday, January 22, 2015

Your money at, waste: the million genomes project

Bulletin from the Boondoggle Department

In desperate need for a huge new mega-project to lock up even more NIH funds before the Republicans (or other research projects that are actually focused on a real problem) take them away, or before individual investigators who actually have some scientific ideas to test, we read that Francis Collins has apparently persuaded someone who's not paying attention to fund the genome sequencing of a million people!  Well, why not?  First we had the (one) human genome project.  Then after a couple of iterations, the 1000 genomes project, then the hundred thousand genomes 'project'.  So, what next?  Can't just go up by dribs and drabs, can we?  This is America, after all!  So let's open the bank for a cool million. Dr Collins has, apparently, never met a genome he didn't like or want to peer into.  It's not lascivious exactly, but the emotion that is felt must be somewhat similar.

We now know enough to know just what we're (not) getting from all of this sequencing, but what we are getting (or at least some people are getting) is a lot of funds sequestered for a few in-groups or, more dispassionately perhaps, for a belief system, the belief that constitutive genome sequence is the way to conquer every disease known to mankind.  Why, this is better than what you get by going to communion every week, because it'll make you immortal so you don't have to worry that perhaps there isn't any heaven to go to after all.

Anyway, why not, the genomes are there, their bearers will agree and they've got the blood to give for the cause.  Big cheers from the huge labs, equipment manufacturers and those eyeing the Europe and and Chinese to make sure we don't fall behind anyone (and knowing they're eyeing us for the very same reason).  And this is also good for the million author papers that are sure to come.  And that's good for the journals, because they can fill many pages with author lists, rather than substance.

Of course, we're just being snide (though, being retired, not jealous!).  But whether in fact this is good science or just ideology and momentum at work is debatable but won't be debated in our jealous me-too or me-first environment.

Is there any slowing down the largely pointless clamor for more......?

We've written enough over the past few years not to have to repeat it here, and we are by no means the only ones to have seen through the curtain and identified who the Wiz really is.  If this latest stunt doesn't look like a masterful, professionally skilled boondoggle to you, then you're seeing something very different from what we see.  One of us needs to get his glasses cleaned.  But for us it's moot, of course, since we don't control any of the funds.


Ken Weiss said...

Here is something to think about in this context:

A phrase that I think first was used in physics, is that one should ask "well-posed questions". They have specific answers, among other attractions, and they focus study designs. Raw induction, by contrast, provides some information and even occasionally some cogently interpretable pattern.

However the record of this rationale isn't all that great (or why would we so denigrate Victorian beetle collecting?). But the power of technology is leading is to (back to?) raw induction as the modus vivendi of science.

Also, one cannot, except by being very naive, dismiss the venal aspect of huge longterm studies, in a funding environment that is competitive by design. We'll see how well it pays off and at what cost.

Unfortunately, by so heavily committing resources to this worldview, we won't as easily get to see what we'd achieve if we made the same investment in addressing well-posed questions.

Ken Weiss said...

I posted a comment on your blog, Anonymous. We aren't even insisting on good measures of success, and of course we aren't watching funds carefully--or, rather, we're not watching the throat-hold on funds that big unstoppable projects has, regardless of realistic assessment of their level of 'success'