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Is “genetics . . . a boondoggle”?

A recent article by Arthur Allen in Slate suggests that “genetics is so far a boondoggle.” Putting aside the genetic profiling industry, which Allen likens to “snake oil,” his disappointment in genetics seems misplaced. I am not personally qualified to judge the progress being made in genetics, but as Allen notes: “In five years, the genome has indeed transformed biological research. Thanks to vast quantities of new genetic information, scientists are revealing unimagined complexity in the molecular workings of the body.” Seems like decent progress to me.

What I find disappointing, I suppose, is the criteria by which success/disappointment is judged. Allen next states: “Precisely because of this complexity, though, much of the data have little immediately useful meaning, and the research has produced only a trickle of medicine. The drug industry submitted 50 percent fewer applications to the Food and Drug Administration in 2002 and 2003 than in 1997 and 1998, despite the fact that biotech research investment doubled between the two periods. ”

So what? Is this really a problem with genetics? or perhaps, maybe, with the market / expecations of investors?

Allen is correct to express the disappointment of investors, those folks that invested so heavily with expectations for short term returns. But otherwise, it hard for me to credit the argument that “genetics is so far a boondoggle.”

We should celebrate the sequencing of the human genome and continue to support and applaud the scientific advancements being made in biologial research. Scientific research takes time and effort; so maybe we should temper our expectations for immediate (commercially) useful results.