Ari Patrinos on Public vs. Private in the HGP
  Ari Patrinos     Biography    
Recorded: 03 Mar 2006

I’ve always felt that in any endeavor that there is a place for the public sector. I don’t care what it is. You know, even in the setting of serious policies, environmental issues, and so on, that the public sector has to have a significant role. The private sector has to have a significant role. In fact when Celera was created and announced that they would sequence the Human Genome Project, I thought the more the merrier. Having a private sector player in genomics would, in fact, broaden the involvement from other companies in the private sector, because otherwise the process of diffusion of a lot of these ideas and technologies and solutions would take much longer if you didn’t have such a private sector player. So I was never threatened by any private sector involvement.

Well, there was, of course, a lot of emotion and I have to defend my colleagues in the public program for the hurt they felt when Craig Venter came out of the blue and announced that he was going to sequence the Human Genome Project in less time than it would have taken the public program to do it. Perhaps innocently but, you know, ended up being a huge insult for my colleagues in the public program, folks, well, why don’t you sequence mouse? For Craig Venter it probably made a lot of sense, but for our colleagues in the public program it was a huge slap in the face. You also have to realize that a lot was at stake with respect to funding. There is the goal and the lofty goals of doing what we did for the Human Genome Project, but we were also in the public program employed in interesting research across laboratories and universities, and gainfully employed. Getting a lot of attention, a lot of recognition and dreaming ahead of a wonderful future where we would be the originators of this information that would give birth to a whole new industry and we would be the champions. The first in line! Then all of a sudden, out of the blue comes a competitor that threatened this. It threatened in two ways; first, in a sense of getting there first and maybe succeeding in private sector applications much faster than we would have, but more importantly was the fact that the government, our political masters, would all of a sudden say, why do we need to fund you? You know, if we have a private company that’s out there and is going to do it with private funds, why are we wasting government funding? There’s plenty of other places where we could put this money. That was the biggest threat. That was the biggest danger. That’s what drove, in essence, the heartbeats to rise significantly of the folks in the public sector and to close ranks and galvanize, you know, the efforts to make sure that we don’t get beaten to the punch. To make sure that we distinguished ourselves, made our efforts more distinct and different than what the private sector was trying to do. There was a very, very strong survival motive behind this race or this competition or this fight or whatever the term you used.

I had conversations with some folks within my department, for example. I did have conversations with staffers up on the Hill about this. I also had conversations with staffers that dealt with NIH funding. You know, usually they do that. They try to get public servants that are not directly—it’s a very Byzantine system up on the Hill. You know there are different committees that oversee NIH, different committees that oversee D.O.E. So staffers of one committee that oversee D.O.E., for example, try to go to Francis Collins to get the straight scoop about, you know, what the D.O.E. are doing and vice-versa. So, yes, I had several conversations with staffers, especially ones that represented Congress people that were fiscally conservative who felt that the public money should not be going to do anything that the private sector is doing. There are some people who rightfully feel that we should not be competing with the private sector. This was one case that appeared at least in the minds of some people to be a—you know, here you have this big, huge federal government with its trillions of resources competing against one little company that had managed to gather, you know, the savings of a few people and put a few millions of dollars together and was trying to do this very important thing and the government was racing with them. So this David and Goliath, however inaccurate it may have been in some respects, was an easy one to make.

Craig himself would be the first to admit that the success of Celera was based on a lot of research that the public program had funded over the years. I mean, he’s the first to admit it and he didn’t start from scratch. There was a lot of knowledge, a lot of capability. There was the result of the investments over close to a decade by that time in genomics work. So it was based on that. Moreover, I feel, you know, that it should never be a one-trick pony. I mean at that time we weren’t even sure which way is going to work. I mean certainly Craig had proposed to use the shotgun approach to sequence the human genome. At that time I was convinced that he was correct. I can say that in retrospect. Maybe he won’t believe me. I thought that he had demonstrated with Haemophilus influenzae, he had demonstrated it with Drosophila. I saw no reason despite the increase in the scale and the size that the shotgun method wouldn’t work for human. But it was still a hypothesis. It was still a theory and it could still come crumbling down. It may not have worked. Whereas the approach that we had followed which was, you know, back by back more orderly, first mapping and then sequencing that the public program had done was perhaps more guaranteed to reach a certain successful point. So you have two competing approaches apart from the fact that you had two sectors, the public and the private sector. You also had two competing approaches and this was too important a project to leave to one way. And I think the competition part was correct and finally—last but not least, the notion that there was some anxiety about the motives of Celera with respect to the availability of the data was a guarantee, was a real argument why you needed to continue the public program. Because in actual fact, maybe Craig Venter did intend to make the data available, but as it turned out eventually he was not really totally in charge of the company. There were others in the company that may have had other ideas and, you know, he could have been gone all the way to the end when the genome was sequenced believing in his heart that he was going to make the data available and, you know, he could have been promptly fired and the data could have been hoarded. So, you know, there were plenty of arguments why that should continue. Besides it made wonderful drama!

Ari Patrinos, currently is a president of Synthetic Genomics, Inc. He is best known for his leading roles in the development of the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the U.S. Human Genome Project. He earned his undergraduate degree from the National Technical University of Athens and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and astronautical sciences from Northwestern University.

Patrinos has worked in Department of Energy (DOE) Laboratory system since 1973. His research area includes biomedical engineering, atmospheric turbulence, environmental chemistry, climate change, and statistical methods. In 1995 he became the Associate Director for Biological and Environmental Research in the DOE Office of Science and was responsible for human and microbial genome programs, structural biology, nuclear medicine and health effects, global environmental change. He helped create the DOE's Joint Genome Institute (JGI) in 1997 and developed the DOE's Genomes to Life Program.

He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American Geophysical Union, and a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.