Ari Patrinos on Respective Roles of the D.O.E. and NIH in the Human Genome Project
  Ari Patrinos     Biography    
Recorded: 03 Mar 2006

Well, we officially got some money for the Human Genome Project in ’87. After that time Senator Pete Domenici made sure that more money was added every year for the Human Genome Project. Of course around that time the NIH originally was somewhat negative about the project, but very quickly several very, very competent and capable people started weighing in and correctly made sure that, you know, the Human Genome Project wasn’t just a project of the Department of Energy, it would seem very odd, very strange and it would not be correct to have the Human Genome Project only in the Department of Energy. And of course, the National Academy of Sciences weighed in. At that time the Office of Technology Assessment on The Hill—so other forces now started organizing and reports started coming out making the case for the project. So eventually the NIH also started their own project. I think it was ’88.

Then it was clear that you couldn’t have two projects that would be independent of each other, competitive or contradicting each other. So all the big boys and girls weighed in and made sure that all these scientists and science managers that may have been bickering about who has the lead or who should have the lead and so on. We had to “make nice” as we say. And therefore there was a Memorandum of Understanding that was signed between NIH and D.O.E. and at least in public we appeared to be united and concerted and, you know, very coherent in our approaches. We launched officially the program in 1990. At that time it was considered a fifteen-year project as we said for three billion dollars. And we came pretty darn close. In fact we came under budget and certainly before the time that we promised.

I think that was the simplistic interpretation of the Memorandum of Understanding – the way we tried to explain it to the rest of the world and especially to our political masters. The truth of the matter was, you know, it was just a hundred flowers’ bloom. We certainly in D.O.E. started a lot of efforts in technology development that didn’t end anywhere. And a lot of very interesting technology developed elsewhere for example. So I think it was one of those cases where we had to, for the sake of our political masters, for the sake of the system had to define roles because in the bureaucracy if you can’t do that very effectively then, you know, the real bureaucrats, the ones with the green eyeshades and the sharp pencils if they can’t find a way to compartmentalize activities, you know, they get uncomfortable. And you don’t want these guys to be uncomfortable.

For the sake of selling this project we made the case that, yeah, D.O.E. with its laboratories and its computers and its technology development focuses mostly on technology development. NIH being, you know, the agency of human health was focusing mostly on the disease gene hunting. The truth of the matter is the first few years was, you know, all bets were off and we were all over the place. We were both doing all kinds of things. Advancing the field generally, but in a few places taking two steps back and one step forward. It was pretty chaotic. But, you know, that’s the way science advances. People that think that science is a very orderly process, you know, that you sort of can have a road map for it and move forward according to the plan. This five-year plan was also a joke. We had to do it because it sounded good, you know, and it sold very well. But it was really an excuse to just do research and people loved it.

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.