The Breakfast Table

The British vs. Science

Dear George,

When you were on the shortlist for that prize (I was on it again this year–always a bridesmaid, but never a bride), were you in the group photograph? I don’t recall. We were posed in front of a rocket in the Science Museum in London. There was something symbolically British about the fact that the rocket (called, I think, Blue Streak) was our great national hope in about 1960, and turned into a great national fiasco instead.

Brits may take science writers seriously, but they don’t take much notice of science. Indeed, they rather despise it. I was amazed when on a book tour in the United States earlier this year by the sharp, informed, but above all optimistic questions I got asked. Over here, it’s all gloom and doom, especially over genetically modified food, where much of the country takes the Prince Charles line that all science has been a complete disaster so far so why should GM food be any different? (Have you had smallpox recently? I sometimes ask.)

Anyway, they think, science is just part of a plot by U.S. corporations to take over the world. When Dolly the sheep was cloned, nobody here took much notice till President Clinton did. Few Britons realize that genetic fingerprinting, test-tube babies, and the double helix were all discovered here. Even the Human Genome Project is one-third British, two-thirds American and the rest nowhere (look back at the congressional debates when it started and you’ll find middle America was scared the Japanese would monopolize it). In fact, according to the New Yorker article, it was British determination that shored up the courage of the Genome Project when Craig Venter made his end run in 1998 (what is an end run, by the way?). Michael Morgan of the Wellcome Trust apparently made a Churchillian speech to rally a demoralized group.

My heart’s with Venter, but not my head. He has taken on the entrenched conservatism of big science three times and beaten them, and in doing so he’s showed up everything that’s wrong with the bureaucratic, public-sector model of science funding: an old-boy network with a conventional resistance to change.

My head’s with the HGP, though, for this reason. However one plays it, the public is scared stiff of this new knowledge ending up in private hands, especially over here where we are still taught to hate capitalists at school. And Venter is too clever for his own good. He would end up with something close to a monopoly, as the first person often does in a new industry (see Rockefeller, J.D., and Gates, W.H.). So I’m glad the public sector is making a version of the genome available free to all. That should encourage free competition to exploit it.

As for your single number point, it’s elegant, but in this case I think you’ve got it the wrong way round. It’s not like turning a library into a number; it’s like reconstructing a library from a number. Imagine if Shakespeare had been written in Linear B and we had only just cracked the code. The thing about the genome is that we do know what it means–we can translate it into protein and guess, then prove, what those proteins do. We’ve known the code since the early ‘60s; now we have the text. It takes time to understand each bit fully, and it will never make bedside reading. But it’s not meaningless.