Maynard Olson on Competition in Science
  Maynard Olson     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2003

Oh, it’s good to be in competition. It adds to the stress, but it’s good to be in competition. And one of the—on the whole the competition has been constructive in the genome project. The great Celera episode was destructive competition and I believe was quite damaging not to destroy the project but to science. And that’s perhaps a whole other story. I’ve written on this topic. I have an article in the Journal of Molecular Biology where I express my views. I believe that was destructive competition that the scientific community should not have allowed or at least sanctioned this type of competition that involved—

Yeah, it involved manipulation of the press, overt and deliberate misrepresentation of the substance of what was happening.

It happens in politics, but actually most scientific competition is not of that nature. It’s so unique. That episode was unique in my experience. I mean I’ve seen a lot of intense scientific competition and the—but there are ground rules to intense scientific competition. Within the sort of public sector genome project I didn’t see a lot of destructive competition. There was an acceptance of the need for ongoing strong peer reviewed processes and a determination not to lock in to particular approaches or particular, you know, centers very early. And there was a lot of turn over in genome centers in the early years. I chaired for several years the NIH study section that reviewed genome center grants and it was difficult work because lots of them took a tryout and were phased out fairly quickly because they didn’t survive the competition with others that moved forward more rapidly. So that’s like, you know, the Adam Smith economy. It is harsh, but it’s effective and constructive as long as some basic rules are followed. And on the whole I think they were.

Maynard V. Olson received his Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from California Institute of Technology and Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from Stanford University (1970). After five years on the chemistry faculty at Dartmouth College, he shifted his research efforts to molecular genetics at Washington University in St Louis and the University of Washington in Seattle. He now serves as Director of the University of Washington Human Genome Center, Professor of Genetics and Medicine, and Adjunct Professor of Computer Science & Engineering.

A pioneer in genomic research, Dr. Olson launched the ultimately successful effort to construct a detailed physical map of the yeast genome in 1979. He also led efforts to develop yeast artificial chromosomes (YACs) that allowed for the study of large portions of the human genome and proved invaluable in the tracking of disease-related genes, and he introduced STS-content mapping which led to the first physical maps of whole human chromosomes.

Dr. Olson is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has been awarded the Genetics Society of America Medal, the City of Medicine Award, and the Gairdner Foundation International Award for his scientific contributions to the Human Genome Project.

Influenced by Watson’s book, Molecular Biology of the Gene, Olsen started working with the genome in the 1970’s. He met Jim Watson when they both served on Bruce Albert’s Committee of the National Research Council. Olsen also helped to organize several genome meetings at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory during the 1980s.