"Capricious funding decisions", "a politically driven project". Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports.
The Medical Research Council (MRC), which dispenses public funds for biomedical research, has been promoting health genomics at great expense, after hundreds of millions have been squandered on the human genome project that has yielded little more than start-up companies for the biotech industry. Worse still, it intends to set up a large human DNA BioBank as follow-on from the human genome sequence that has now been mapped and sequenced.
The BioBank project aims to accumulate DNA samples from 500 000 UK citizens in the first instance, to be stored along with personal data and health records. It promises to revolutionising healthcare by identifying gene variants that make individuals susceptible to major diseases such as Alzheimers, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. New drugs and therapy will be discovered, that will be customised to the individuals genetic makeup, so it is claimed. All of which is hype bordering on nonsense.
Right from the start, the BioBank has been widely criticised by public interest organisations for the potential misuse of the database that could result in genetic discrimination against those carrying putative disease-genes, and for the erosion of privacy.
More than that, we have pointed out that the project was simply misguided by genetic determinist ideology, and consequently, the database would prove largely useless and would only serve to fuel the resurgence of eugenics.
On March 25, however, the highly influential House of Commons Selective Committee on Science and Technology (SCST) finally released a strongly worded report that bears out most of our criticisms.
The SCST report points out that "there is significant disquiet about the policies and performance of the MRC"; and that the perceived shortcomings have "harmed the reputation of the organisation and caused great resentment among .the research community". The MRC has had a good track record in the past, but has "gone to pieces" in the last few years.
The MRC stands accused of "making capricious funding decisions", of "inconsistent and inadequate communication", and spending too much on big projects, leaving little for individual researchers in universities.
"A lot of researchers are feeling awfully fed up," said Ian Gibson, Chair of the SCST as well as the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee (see Box).
Ian Gibson challenges the scientific establishment
Ian Gibson has a doctorate in biochemistry and was a successful researcher and academic before he became a Member of Parliament, without doubt, one of the most scientifically literate Member of Parliament.
He appears to be increasingly taking on the scientific establishment after having instigated an enquiry into government funding of learned societies last year. That report, released August 2002, has made quite a dent in the self-satisfied smugness of the Royal Society.
For example, the Royal Society was urged to be more family friendly, to reassess its selection procedures to identify "possible obstacles to the success of female applicants" and to be more representative of the entire scientific community in its research funding. The Royal Societys Committee for Public Understanding of Science (Copus), in particular, was damned as "revealing of a gulf in perception [between the Royal Society and outsiders]".
Most of all, the Royal Societys "confidence in its all-round expertise may be misplaced," the report said, and urges the Royal Society "to consider carefully when producing policy and advice whether it really has adequate in-house expertise in all fields of scientific knowledge, and to consult other learned societies as a matter of course."
At a recent "DNA 50 years" side-event, part of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary since the publication of Watson and Cricks famous article on the DNA double-helix, Ian Gibson gave an erudite, yet deceptively spirited and off-hand account of the many scientists besides Watson and Crick who should be given credit, starting with Rosalind Franklin whose stolen data was crucial to the Nobel Prize awarded to her male colleagues. The talk was liberally sprinkled with side-swipes at the class solidarity within the scientific establishment, and remarks on DNA being "boring" and "over-hyped". He even mentioned one of my heroes in the Edinburgh University Genetics Department, C.H. Waddington, prominent critic of genetic determinism in the 1950s right up to his death in 1976.
The MRC is to spend US $700 million this year, ranking second only to the $900 million from the Wellcome Trust, a charity that has long been criticised for being too friendly to the pharmaceutical industry. Over half of the MRC money goes to its 39 research facilities spread across UK; much of the rest go to peer-reviewed grants, fellowships, graduate school stipends and special projects such as BioBank. The BioBank costs the MRC $70 million, and also receives support from the Department of Health and the Wellcome Trust.
The BioBank is a "politically driven project", says the report, and the MRC is faulted for "inadequately consulting the research community" over plans for it.
Needless to say, the MRC did not really consult the public either. It carried out a highly selective and limited consultation exercise that excluded public groups known to be critical of the project. Nevertheless, those consulted raised numerous objections and questions that remained unanswered to this day. The promised public consultation scheduled for the beginning of 2002 simply vanished into thin air.
MRC chief executive George Radda was reported to be "surprised and disappointed" by the SCST report, which he says is "full of error, misunderstanding, and misuse of information." He is preparing a full reply jointly with the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Health.
Radda has better justify the huge spending on BioBank and health-genomics related research. The UK is not the only government caught in this financial blackhole. An article in the April issue of Nature biotechnology by Berkeley geneticist David Rasnick, who has set up a biotech company, exposes the lack of success in the sector, both scientifically and financially. He predicts that "the entire healthcare industry in the United States is set for a major fall and biotechnology will likely lead the way". Governments of Singapore, Malaysia and other countries have better take heed.
Sir Alex Jeffreys, father of forensic genetics, who has earlier proposed to extend the DNA BioBank project to include the entire population of Britain, is now reported to be unconvinced that a large scale longitudinal study such as the BioBank will yield more insights than traditional case control studies. BioBank has the "potential to consume very large amounts of money", he says, and a cost benefit analysis is needed.
He should also take into account the much more serious waste of scientific talent and imagination in condemning generations of scientists to the routine, mind-numbing work involved in the project.
Not to mention, further, the phenomenal amounts of time and effort that countless doctors, nurses, technicians, clerks, etc. will have to devote to collecting and storing samples, keeping records, to quality control and to ensuring that the data collected are kept confidential; time and effort that will be taken away from the care of patients.
Health genomics and the BioBank indeed constitute a big white elephant that will bankrupt the National Health Service in more ways than one.
Article first published 19/04/03
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