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Science in Mind

Claim of $1 trillion impact of genome project questioned

In his State of the Union address this year, President Obama cited a study that estimated that taxpayers got a whopping $796 billion return from the $3.8 billion investment in sequencing the human genome. That larger-than-life number was laid out as an important reason to invest in basic science.

Now, an update to the report has been issued, finding that the economic benefits of the government’s investment in the field during a longer time frame, between 1988 and 2012, were even more vast — a $1 trillion return.

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Most people believe the genome project was a worthy investment, with dividends not only in new jobs and companies, but in health. But the initial analysis raised some criticism and skepticism from economists because of issues with the methodology, and the new report seems destined to do the same.

“How can they do this with a straight face?” Julia Lane, an economist for the American Institutes for Research, said. “If it was indeed a trillion-dollar impact, then why are they doing anything except investing in the human genome project?”

Lane said some of the calculations done in the new analysis are standard and reasonable.

But what the report has also done, she said, is attribute every economic activity that has any association with the genome to the initial investment by the NIH.

Lane said that trumpeting such findings may be detrimental to public perception of the purpose of scientific research and distort the expectations of its output.

“By telling people that funding for science is a slot machine and if you put in money, magic will happen you’re really doing a huge disfavor,” Lane said.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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