Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

A Discipline Withers in Big Science's Shadow: Opinion

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

A Discipline Withers in Big Science's Shadow: Opinion

Article excerpt

Projects such as industrial-scale genome sequencing waste scant resources and threaten the UK's science base, warns Bill Amos.

Not long ago, the Nobel prizewinning scientist James Watson, co- discoverer of the structure of DNA, made a wry comment in a seminar. It went something like this: "If you are not in a big research group, think about packing your bags to leave science." It is a view that is reinforced by the government's plans to sequence 100,000 human genomes, but clashes with a recent Radio 4 discussion on Start the Week that pointed out how the promises used to sell "big science" are, by and large, pie in the sky.

For genome sequencing, the gold at the end of the rainbow usually involves cures for cancer, used to justify the first genome sequence, the 1,000 Genomes project and now 100,000 more. These promises were made before and will no doubt be made again, apparently without even a backward glance at whether they were fulfilled.

As a geneticist, I should surely welcome such projects, but I do not. I am passionate about my discipline but my heart bleeds to see the way British science is being sent inexorably down the pan by the state's focus on throwing more and more resources at big-budget, industrial-scale data collection. This approach may delight sequencing companies such as Illumina, but it is undermining our science base for a number of reasons.

First, by taking ever-larger bites from a modest and diminishing funding pot, big science starves the wider scientific community. Consequently, the next generation of scientists is already leaving, and many undergraduates I have spoken to feel that their chances of getting one of the handful of studentships on offer these days are too low to be worth the effort.

Second, genome sequencing offers little science training because most of the work is done by machines and technicians. Third, it is the antithesis of good science, being largely hypothesis-free and involving little experimental design. Why are we placing our few remaining publicly funded eggs into proportionately fewer and fewer baskets? Certainly it cannot be because big science offers good value for money: it clearly does not. Instead, the reason seems to lie with the way success is being measured. …

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