Maynard Olson on Craig Venter & Celera Genomics
  Maynard Olson     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2003

Well, my reaction was negative. That the—the core of the problem in my view there relates to, you know, what I said briefly earlier. That the price of admission to the scientific community should be rough compliance with a number of rules. And they’re not particular rigid rules. They’re not followed all the time but nonetheless, you know, laws are broken all the time too in our society but we co-exist because on the whole there is a social consensus that certain types of behavior are inappropriate.

So what are these behaviors? Deliberate misrepresentation of the technical components of what one is discussing is inappropriate behavior for a scientist. That is, one should simply should not—politicians do this all the time and they sometimes get away with it. I mean they know that you know New York State is going broke, it is broke and they’re out there saying that times have never been better. We have big surpluses. They’re lying and they get away with it. Scientists simply shouldn’t say that, you know, that this method is better than that method when there is overwhelming well-known evidence that this statement is false. And so there was massive misrepresentation. I documented these points in the this Journal of Molecular Biology article complete with extensive quotations from the Congressional Record where both I and Venter were under oath and presumably and every word was being written down. There was massive misrepresentation of what the situation was.

And the personal attacks should not be allowed in science or condoned. I mean all of us lose our tempers from time to time. We say things that we later regret. But it should not be the basic structure of contention between scientists. The–when, you know, Venter was asked in congressional testimony—this was under oath—why he didn’t go to the NIH to get support for his project and turned to the private sector instead. He said it was because Maynard Olson was the chairman of the review committee at the NIH and he’d never give him a grant. This should not be allowed. The—and yet the bulk of the scientific community got a little bit too caught up in the excitement of all of this. You know the scientific community, they like mavericks. And Venter packaged himself remarkably well as a maverick. That he was the, you know, he was the person who was challenging the establishment and that he wasn’t appreciated and he had better ideas and so forth. This was all a mythology that he built up. I mean his statements simply did not withstand scrutiny. If you went and actually read the papers, I don’t know whether he’d read them or not but they’re there. You know the things that he said that he invented. He didn’t invent. They were already well known methods. The superiority of the thing that he’d invented which he actually hadn’t invented wasn’t a superiority. It was a very complicated bundle of trade-offs that had been carefully analyzed in the literature and so forth.

So it was this type of interaction that was destructive and an indication that the scientific community really ultimately lacks the ability to enforce its own culture in a way that is particularly consistent.

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.