False Alarm: The Celebrity Meme
There is this meme that has been going around about how “celebrity genomics” is in some way very naughty and should be avoided. This meme keeps popping up since it was first inaugurated in a news article by Erika Check entitled “Celebrity genomes alarm researchers”. Here were some of the quotes from that article:
First Francis Collins, head of the US National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) in Bethesda, Maryland:
“If all the sequences obtained over the next year or two are done on scientists with strong financial positions, that will send a message quite contrary to what the genome project aimed to achieve”
Next up, Michael Ashburner, a geneticist at the University of Cambridge, UK:
“I’d hate the availability of single-genome sequencing to be based purely on money and fame. Just doing famous or very rich people is bloody tacky, actually.”
And finally, Kathy Hudson, director of Johns Hopkins University’s Genetics and Public Policy Centre in Washington DC:
“This is almost like recreational genomics, or the molecular equivalent of a whole-body scan, for those who have boundless curiosity and cash,” says Kathy Hudson “It will be sort of a sad statement if that’s what we end up getting out of the Human Genome Project.”
Kathy Hudson again in an article this week on Project Jim in The Scientist:
However, not everyone has expressed such enthusiasm for…project [Jim]. Some scientists are concerned that sequencing celebrities (J. Craig Venter also recently unveiled his genome) gives the impression that it is only for the wealthy or well-known. “It’s great that companies and academic units are making sequencing faster and cheaper,” says Kathy Hudson from the Johns Hopkins Berman Bioethics Institute. But sequencing only scientific celebrities “gives a misimpression about what genomics is all about–improving people’s health.”
I respect all of these people. I would be concerned if in five years the field of personal genomics were to look something like this:
This video doesn’t exactly capture the essence of the Personal Genome Project (PGP) or characterize what we are trying to accomplish. I would like to address the concerns of the people quoted above, but before I do that I think it would be best to wait until our project website is live (which is very soon). Between now and then, I would be interested to hear from others out there on this matter.
I realize you can’t comment directly about the PGP since you don’t have much information. I’m looking for comments on the following questions:
#1 Is there a real problem in the fact the first people sequenced are famous scientists from the field of genetics? If so, why? Who would be a better #1, #2, and #3? See question #7.
#2 If a famous person gets sequenced does this really “give a misimpression about what genomics is all about”. How?
#3 Are there any reasons why having famous people sequenced might be beneficial? How do these stack up to the negatives?
#4 There are levels of fame. Paris Hilton fame (or infamy) is one thing, what about people that are famous in small circles (which describes pretty much every scientist…sorry scientists, you’re just not that famous, even the really “popular” ones). Does this matter? I hope everyone is the bee’s knees in somebody’s eyes…
#5 I’m not interested in comments about how genomics is only or will be only for the rich and famous, CEOs and super athletes. This is hogwash. That would be a sad state of affairs, we can all agree on that. Am I’m wrong or am I misreading the future?
#6 How much does it matter that the first ten genomes are from famous people or hermits or people with a myspace page or otherwise?
#7 How likely is that, to quote from above, “all the sequences obtained over the next year or two are done on scientists with strong financial positions”? In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter who genome sequence #1, #2, and #3 is from? See question number 1 above, but be careful because you might get caught in an infinite loop.
#8 How likely is it that, to quote from above, “genome sequencing [will] be based purely on money and fame” or “for those who have boundless curiosity and cash”?
Comments are open.
Erika Check. Celebrity genomes alarm researchers. Nature 447, 358-359 (24 May 2007)