Ari Patrinos on Attempts at Reconciliation Between Collins and Venter
  Ari Patrinos     Biography    
Recorded: 03 Mar 2006

Well, you know, as we were approaching the end, and I’m talking about ’99 now mostly, the acrimony between the two sides was starting to get too extreme. I think the media—there was a media frenzy about this. It was very interesting as a topic. I mean again it cast the government against the individual. And then the personalities, of course, were colorful and interesting. Multiple stories were starting to be written. And I think on both sides these wonderful scientists were quite naïve, you know, in terms of their dealings with the media. They were very much taken advantage of. A lot of what they said was taken out of context. They were easily goaded, you know, to say things that perhaps they regretted afterwards. And I’m talking about both sides. Certainly Craig is very volatile but, you know, Francis Collins also was very easily provoked to say things that he subsequently regretted. So I think the temperature was rising significantly and the tenor was also getting uglier.

I am, I remain a friend of both of them, both Francis and Craig. I am very, very fond of them and frankly in awe of both of them in terms of their capability, their passion, their dedication and their contributions. I thought what was happening was really very bad for both of them. It was really this friendship and this admiration that I have for both of them that prompted me to start trying to do something about bringing them together. Francis is my neighbor so we would run into each other on a regular basis. And, of course, at that time the public program was very much in a high gear and there was almost daily interaction between D.O.E. and NIH because we were on this together. So was the Sanger Centre, for example, Wellcome Trust and our other international partners. So I would see Francis practically once or twice a day. But I would also see Craig, you know, it would be more clandestine, the interactions that we had. Whether we would meet at the park or we would have long conversations on the phone or I would drop in at his home. This was what got me started in terms of telling them, you know, why can’t we just lower the temperature. Or I would chide them when I would read something in the press and I would say, did you really say that? Did you really say that this would be the equivalent of the Mad magazine version of the genome? And similarly for many of the outrageous things that Craig said also.

I think after a certain point they both had—now I’m only speculating and I don’t know whether they’ll ever admit it, but I think they both felt that they had crossed the line and that in a sense their reputation and their careers were threatened. They’re both admittedly and understandably very ambitious people, but they felt that this was a situation that was getting out of control. They also felt that it was getting largely out of control because they were both within their own cocoons. Craig was surrounded by his people and Francis was surrounded by his people and there was an inherent interest in these cocoons to keep this division existent, extant because you create these entourages or these people that are around you and they feed upon themselves. So as long as these individuals were trapped in their own cocoons there was no way there would be a _____. There were attempts frankly by highers-up and I think Harold Varmus had tried. There were some high level meetings where they met at the airport hotel and they stared across the table. It was doomed to fail because they were within their own cocoons so they could not really break out of that. Very quickly a lot of these dialogues became shouting matches and broke down.

It was very, very clear to me that the only way you could succeed is if you get them out of their usual surroundings and put them together in a setting which is non-threatening. A setting that could be off the record where you could at least start a dialogue and I think that’s what happened. When, you know after a lot of arm twisting I managed to get them in my living room, you know, and they sat there, and it was just the three of us, it was amazing how quickly the ice melted and how quickly they saw a lot of similarities in their own predicaments. Again, I don’t know whether they will ever admit it. They may have realized how much victims they were of their own surroundings and of their own constituencies. And that somehow in order for them to really fix this problem, they had to break out of these surroundings and they had to assert themselves as leaders of their respective programs and take the initiative that eventually they both took to make this happen. To make things happen is to just not give frankly the media any more opportunities to turn this into an ugly race. You know, and what we agreed upon eventually in terms of a joint announcement and eventually an event at the White House where however, you know, the sentiments were they both appeared smiling and felt very good about each other and said all the right things.

Ari Patrinos, currently is a president of Synthetic Genomics, Inc. He is best known for his leading roles in the development of the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the U.S. Human Genome Project. He earned his undergraduate degree from the National Technical University of Athens and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and astronautical sciences from Northwestern University.

Patrinos has worked in Department of Energy (DOE) Laboratory system since 1973. His research area includes biomedical engineering, atmospheric turbulence, environmental chemistry, climate change, and statistical methods. In 1995 he became the Associate Director for Biological and Environmental Research in the DOE Office of Science and was responsible for human and microbial genome programs, structural biology, nuclear medicine and health effects, global environmental change. He helped create the DOE's Joint Genome Institute (JGI) in 1997 and developed the DOE's Genomes to Life Program.

He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American Geophysical Union, and a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.