James Wyngaarden on Competition in Science
  James Wyngaarden     Biography    
Recorded: 18 Aug 2003

Well, with respect to the human genome project, when I first heard about the rumor that DeLisi had three million dollars to sequence the human genome, my first reaction was, you know, this is something that has been building at the NIH since the early 1950s.

Jim Shannon started a bacterial genetics program. There was a lot of phage genetics, there was a lot of human genetics going on. And every institute had a program in genetics related to the diseases that it was primarily working on.

So when I heard about this in London, my first reaction was [that] he’s stealing our birthright. My second was, not on my watch. And when I got back from London I began to talk internally. And that’s when I ran into the kind of resistance that I was frankly rather surprised at that there was not only disinterest, there was active fear of this project as to what it might do to the existing programs at the NIH. But I was absolutely determined that if the project was going to be done, we were going to be the major player. And that’s the way it turned out.

Well, you know, we all have a certain amount of ego invested in what we do. And when someone gets too close to what we’re doing, we react. And I think that competition is responsible for a lot of progress, not just in science but in the world in general.

James B. Wyngaarden is a medical doctor, biochemist and medical science advisor. He served as director of the National Institutes of Health, associate director for Life Sciences in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President, and as director of the Human Genome Organization. Wyngaarden is currently part of the Washington Advisory Group, LLC and director of four biotechnology/pharmaceutical companies. Wyngaarden is also co-author of the textbook The Metabolic Basis of Inherited Disease.

He researches the regulation of purine biosynthesis, the production of uric acid and he helped initiate the use of allopurinol, a drug developed as an anticancer agent and now used as a treatment for gout. While serving as director of the National Institutes of Heath, he enlisted the help of Dr. Watson in 1988 to begin the Human Genome Project. Jim obliged and joined the NIH as the associate director for Human Genome Research, while still acting as director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.