John Marburger, a Democrat appointed last year as director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy for the White House, is in a key position to keep genomics on the radar of federal policy makers. Former head of DOE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, he oversaw the lab’s role in the Human Genome Project as well as its proteomics program. Marburger took some time to answer GT’s questions about his post, the future of genomics, and federal funding.
What does this industry have to do to get into or stay in the good graces of the government?
MARBURGER: There is a role for government and a role for industry in R&D. Generally, this administration favors funding high-risk programs that industry would not support, but disfavors funding incremental improvements to technologies already being developed in the private sector. I understand that pharmaceutical companies already spend as much as the federal government does in R&D for medical research — that’s one way of winning favor. It shows that society wants the fruits of R&D investment in this field, and that is a strong argument for federal funding of supporting research. In general research is funded either because it can lead to significant new knowledge about nature, or because it promises benefits to society. Genomics does both.
What particular technologies or goals would you look for in the genomics field before making a recommendation to the President?
MARBURGER: I do not ordinarily recommend particular technologies or goals to the President. OSTP works together with [other] agencies to identify broad fields like genomics and develop a case for their support. Genomics is a broad field with many opportunities for improving the quality of life for all people — the President has given life science research a high priority partly because of this promise. It is up to the science funding agencies to work out plans for specific projects: priority is given to programs that have a high discovery potential (in the case of basic science) or a high payoff in applications to some issues (such as cancer research).
How do you stay updated on developments in the genomics field?
MARBURGER: I rely on experts in my office who are in touch with the global network of scientists to keep us informed. I visit universities and laboratories where important work is being done. I read journals like Science and Nature, and people send me articles and reports they think I should know about. In the evening I browse science sites on the Web. In a job like this, people want you to be informed, so they send you a continual stream of information.
What’s the outlook for federal money for the genomics sector three, five, 10 years down the road?
MARBURGER: The decoding of the human genome is only the beginning of a very long and arduous research agenda. We don’t yet understand what everything in the genome is for. We do not know the structure or significance of the various proteins for which the genes code. Some protein structures, [such as] membrane proteins, are particularly difficult to unravel. We do not understand the links between major levels of organization — proteins to cells, cells to organs, organs to behavioral manifestations. There is so much to do, and of such importance, that I expect federal support to remain strong for these genomics-related issues for several decades.
Is there a boundary you can identify between what should be done in the public sector and what’s better suited for the private?
MARBURGER: The boundary is fuzzy and shifting. It is easier to state a general philosophy: Long-term, high-risk for public funds, short-term, low-risk for private funds. I expect the border between these two will be under continual scrutiny.