Michael Ashburner on Competition in Science: Public Vs. Private
  Michael Ashburner     Biography    
Recorded: 31 May 2003

Well, I think in twenty years it will be very moot. I think if you talk to people who are really involved in the human program, because I’ve never been, I’ve always been on the sidelines of the human program. I got involved, you know, really kind of politically because during the early period of the human program I was joint director of the European Bioinformatics Institute. I use to get involved a bit, but I’ve never been really involved in—and I’m a close friend of John Sulston’s and I used to talk to John a lot and I know most of the people.

But if you talk to many of the people involved in the public human genome program, they will say that the ramp up in retro sequencing the human which occurred after Craig’s intervention was coincidental. And the circumstances was that there was a very dramatic event during May 1998 at the genome informatics meeting because neither John Sulston nor Michael Morgan, who was the program administrator, the Wellcome were here initially. But because of Craig’s announcement they flew over. And Michael Morgan made an announcement during the meeting that the Wellcome Trust was increasing their funding for the U.K. effort in human genome dramatically. And that was seen as a response to Craig, but in fact, that had been decided by the governors of the Wellcome Trust about three months before. So it wasn’t a response to Craig. But, nevertheless, I think the competition between Craig and the human genome project—I mean, Craig claims that it accelerated the human genome project. And that I think is right. Francis would, I think, probably deny that. But I’m skeptical. But I’m a cynic anyway.

So, yeah, I think there was public outrage that any one company could own something as kind of important for humanity as the human genome sequence.

But Craig announced here, I mean, he talked two days ago that in fact the Celera sequence is going to be deposited in GenBank. And it’s quite clear that the original business model of Celera hasn’t worked. The original business model was nothing to do with large-scale sequencing, but was really as a data provider. And they’ve effectively closed down the sequencing now. And they’re metamorphosing into yet another drug discovery company. So I think the original model for Celera hasn’t worked.

Michael Ashburner, a leader in Drosophila Genetics and bioinformatics, received his B.A. (1964), M.A. (1968), Ph.D. (1968) and Sc.D. (1978) from the University of Cambridge, where he is currently professor of Biology in the Department of Genetics and a Professional Fellow of Churchill College.

He has been the joint head of European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and was co-founder of Flybase, the primary online database for Drosophila genetics and molecular biology, the Gene Ontology Consortium, an effort to coordinate biological databases through a defined taxonomy of gene function, and the Crete Meetings, a bi-annual event focusing on the developmental and molecular biology of Drosophila melanogaster.

Among many honors, he is the recipient of the G.J. Mendel Medal (Czech Republic 1998) and the George W. Beadle Medal (Genetics Society of America 1999).

Michael Ashburner