Venter is a hugely ingenious scientist, but his greatest originality has probably been in the design of new arrangements for doing genomic research and new ways of situating that research in the force field between science and capital: the scientific experiments are made possible by practical experiments in the sociology of organisations. The non-profit bit was called the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), paired with a commercial biotech company, Human Genome Sciences (HGS), that was meant to take ownership of TIGR’s intellectual property and turn it into commercial drugs. Then, in 1998, the instrument-maker Perkin Elmer laid out $300 million for Venter to found a commercial organisation, Celera Genomics, set up specifically to win the race against the NIH-Wellcome public initiative to sequence the whole genome. Venter was convinced that he could do the genome a lot faster and a lot cheaper if only he didn’t have to deal with the dead hand of government or academic bureaucracies. If you want free, unconstrained and risk-taking science, then you more or less need to do it in, or with the support of, the commercial sector. Science and capital have a relationship as vital as it is sometimes uneasy. So sublimely convinced was Venter of the organisational and technical superiority of his private enterprise that at a joint meeting of public and private scientists he proposed that he should go after the human genome while the public initiative did the mouse genome. The public scientists were outraged. ‘I almost punched him in the fucking mouth,’ one of them recalled. ‘Craig,’ James Watson announced, ‘wanted to own the human genome the way Hitler wanted to own the world.’And Allen Orr had a good piece in the NYRB a few weeks ago, but it was subscriber only (that link should work if you are Columbia-affiliated).
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
The future in a crate
At the LRB, Steven Shapin on Craig Venter's autobiography: