Charles Delisi on Public & Private Funding of Science
  Charles Delisi     Biography    
Recorded: 08 Sep 2003

I had projected that the cost of the project would be between two and three billion dollars. I predicted that very early on in the fall of ’85, when I was exchanging emails; in fact those emails are publicly available. They are sitting somewhere in the archives at Georgetown. I projected two to three million. Then Walter Gilbert wrote his famous three billion dollars in the Cold Spring Harbor meeting the following spring. And that’s about what it cost. I had and I don’t remember how I had the DOE budget wrapped it. My wrap up was fairly conservative because I was assuming that the NIH was going to get into the act. And I was also assuming that the private sector would pick up. I did not expect that this would happen easily, simply because there was such stocasticity in the economy. I mean the economy is always uncertain. And I didn’t know it was going to play out. And I had hoped that—you see the other reason for doing this is that it was something that in the ‘80s the biotech industry and the farmers weren’t going to do. They couldn’t do, but I felt the infrastructure was going to be very, very important for those industries. And I was hoping that they would get involved at some point and see the importance of it and get involved. And indeed by the early 90’s they did. The venture capitalists did get involved.

If the economy hadn’t been so good, that would never have happened. I mean you probably never would have seen Celera because there was so much money around. To begin spending on an information-based biotech where there’s no product. I mean people were investing were investing money, but we are having a big backlash from that now. People were investing money in companies where there really was no product except for information. And I said in the mid ‘90s that, you know, this is not going to sell. You’ve got companies that are tremendously overvalued. I knew that there was going to be a collapse. You’ve got to have a product somewhere down the line. And what you’ve got are a lot more products early in the pipeline, but in terms of what’s going to happen in fifteen or twenty years there’s going to be a big impact. There will be some impact all along, but I think you’ll see it, this continuous impact fifteen years from now.

In any case, I hoped that something would happen and indeed it did happen. The economy, we were lucky, stayed whole. But if it hadn’t, you know, if we hadn’t completed, what would have happened if we had stuck to the plan that was proposed in ’88 was to do this by 2006. If we had, in fact, stuck to that, we’d be in trouble today, because the economy today is not going—given the international relations, is not going to sustain the type of growth we sustained. It wouldn’t have finished in 2006. It probably wouldn’t have finished until 2010 or 2012. So we were very, very fortunate that the economy broke the way it broke. And it was something that no one could have—I didn’t foresee it, no one could have foreseen it.

Charles DeLisi did pioneering work in theoretical and mathematical immunology. He received his Ph.D. in physics and did postdoctoral studies in the chemistry department at Yale University researching RNA structure. He became a theoretical physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and then moved to the National Institute of Health, where he worked on molecular and cell immunology for ten years.

DeLisi is currently director of the Biomolecular Systems Laboratory, Chair of the Bioinformatics Program, Metcalf Professor of Science and Engineering and Dean Emeritus of the College of Engineering at Boston University.

Charles DeLisi develops computational methods for high throughput genomic and proteomic analysis. His laboratory is helping to develop technologies for fingerprinting the complete molecular state of a cell. He is interested in finding computational methods for determining protein function and researches the structural basis of signal translation by membrane bound receptors, the structural basis of voltage gating, and the docking of peptide hormones and neurotransmitters at their sites of action.

In 1986, DeLisi and Watson met at a CSHL meeting and spoke about their interests in sequencing the human genome.