Francis Collins on Competition in the Human Genome Project: Public Vs. Private
  Francis Collins     Biography    
Recorded: 31 May 2003

There was a push, absolutely. I don’t think anybody would deny that, that the existence of this private sector enterprise provided a certain amount of motivation and inspiration. But I think that’s been a bit overplayed. I mean people have said oh well that’s why the genome project was completed in 2003. I think we would have come very close to that anyway. We would have traveled a different pathway perhaps in terms of what was drafted and what was finished, but I don’t think it would have been a drastically different outcome. Maybe a month, maybe a year, but not as has been portrayed by some members of the press. Oh, you know, it sped up the project by five years.

I explicitly reject the claim that some have made that the genome project was floundering before Celera appeared on the scene. I was there, I was involved, I was watching this, It was not floundering. This was the most impressive collection of talented, creative, motivated and driven people that you can imagine. And it was actually going very well. The history of the whole thing would indicate that every milestone had been met or exceeded from the beginning of the project until 1998 when Celera suddenly appeared. So this was not a project that somehow had had a bad track record. It had a stellar track record. And this appearance perhaps stirred the pot, changed the strategy a bit, probably for the better. But in terms of the long-term outcome, I guess it’s been significantly overemphasized how much of a difference it made. I mean that was the other thing that was very disturbing about the whole chapter about the finishing or the drafting of the genome. It seemed to imply there was this across the board tension between academic and government sponsored research and the private sector. The genome project has depended upon wonderfully productive relationships with the private sector and will continue in the future of genomics to need that kind of relationship.

What was new on the scene and which I think happily has now receded a bit from view, was this idea that you could take a business model which is supposed to be focused on a product, something that the public wants, something that has specific value in terms of a personal benefit and move that model into an arena of very fundamental basic science information that is a million miles away from actually having that kind of product feel to it. That was a dangerous trend. I think that trend has, happily, by the way that this has turned out, has been scotched a bit. You don’t see a lot of companies now succeeding. You don’t see any that have a business model of that sort where they’re going to sell subscriptions to fundamental information that just wants to be public. That idea has gone away. And it’s a good thing it went away. And it was a sort of weird chapter, but it happened that way. But I don’t—I hope that nobody has missed the point that the real value of what the private sector contributes to genomics is profound, and the real value, it’s tied to products, diagnostics, therapeutics, is the only way we’re going to get to the hoped for future of medical benefits. That relationship between what government and what academia does and what the private sector does has to flourish, has to be nourished, has to be supported.

Francis Collins earned a B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Virginia (1970), a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Yale University (1974), and an M.D. from the University of North Carolina (1977). While a researcher at the University of Michigan (1984-1993), he pioneered “positional cloning” methods which resulted in the Collins team and their collaborators isolating the genes responsible for cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, neurofibromatosis, and others.

In 1993 he accepted leadership of the Human Genome Project (HGP) by becoming Director of the National Center for Human Genome Research (NHGRI). With Dr. Collins as head of the NHGRI, the HGP attained its goal of sequencing all 3 billion base pairs of the human genome.

He has attended all of the Cold Spring Harbor meetings on genomics.