chapter  6
16 Pages

Making maps and making social order: governing American genome centers, 1988–93 STEPHEN HILGARTNER

Governing American genome centers, 1988–93
WithStephen Hilgartner

With two “draft” versions of the sequence of the human genome published in 2001, the mapping and sequencing of the human genome is often presented as among the major scientific successes of the late twentieth century.1 In this celebratory context, the daunting obstacles that the Human Genome Project (HGP) faced, a mere decade before, have receded into the realm of history. But at the close of the 1980s, as political support for a concerted effort to analyze the human genome solidified, even the project’s most enthusiastic supporters acknowledged that the available technology remained wholly inadequate for achieving the project’s goals-producing genetic and physical maps of the human genome and the genomes of a number of model organisms, improving genome technology, and obtaining the complete nucleotide sequence of the human by 2005 (National Research Council 1988). The US genome program, which was slated to spend some $3 billion over a fifteen-year period under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy (DOE), was predicated on significant technological advances. Indeed, to create a crude map of just a single human chromosome with the technology of the late 1980s was a massive undertaking, and sequencing whole mammalian genomes was deemed out of the question. Many scientists feared that the HGP would become a financial boondoggle, and critics contended, privately and sometimes publicly, that sequencing the human genome was a waste of scarce research funds. The central technical challenge was finding ways to increase the rate of data production, a problem that the project’s supporters expected to solve through some combination of incremental improvements in existing techniques, automation, and perhaps major technological breakthroughs.2 At the same time, the challenge of building organizations capable of mapping and sequencing on a large scale was a critical dimension of the problem. Like the rest of molecular biology (Knorr-Cetina 1999), genetic mapping was a world of small, independent laboratories, and these laboratories-while capable of engaging in focused hunts for individual human genes-were considered too small to tackle the problem of working on a genomic scale.