The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics and the Human Genome. John Sulston and Georgina Ferry. x + 310 pages. The Joseph Henry Press, 2002. $24.95.
Autobiography is a curious genre, wrote Jerome Bruner in Acts of Meaning (Harvard University Press, 1990):
It is an account given by a narrator in the here and now about a protagonist bearing his name who existed in the there and then. . . . [T]he larger story reveals a strong rhetorical strand, as if justifying why it was necessary that the life had gone a particular way. The Self as narrator not only recounts but justifies.
Autobiographies are thus laced with presuppositions, and John Sulston's The Common Thread is no exception. (Sulston has a coauthor—science writer Georgina Ferry—but he writes in the first-person singular.) First are his personal presuppositions about his own modest, unassuming personality, his "indifference to material wealth, and . . . overriding sense that one should work for the common good." These standards, Sulston says, have shaped his views on research and especially on communicating scientific information. Second is the assumption that his own professional evolution can provide insight into the history of the Human Genome Project. Sulston links the personal and professional by providing a history of this major scientific endeavor, exploring its shift from a small collective enterprise to a gigantic commercial venture. It is a story that is both celebratory and critical.
Sulston's career as a genomic scientist took off in 1969, when he joined the Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge. He was studying the genetics of a nematode at a time, he nostalgically recalls, when research was done without ulterior motives, financial or otherwise. The LMB was for Sulston an ideal environment marked by intense communication and an ethos of "community." Worm researchers regarded the LMB's worm group as "Mecca." And the atmosphere was clearly productive, spawning no fewer than nine Nobel Prize winners. Sulston, one of these Nobelists, went on to become a major player in the international effort to map and sequence the human genome. He eventually became the director of the famous Sanger Centre at Hinxton, near Cambridge.
Much of Sulston's book describes his own strategic decisions against the background of the larger genome project. The most troubling issues, and those that frame his descriptions, have to do with the commercial direction of genomics—the way potential profits have amplified the effect of normal competition in science, the controversial questions of patenting, and especially the debates over access to sequencing data. Shaped by his early research experience, Sulston remains preoccupied with the importance of sharing information and ideas. He traces in detail the well-known disputes between James Watson and Craig Venter over patenting of gene sequences, and he critically examines the premature patents for gene sequences awarded by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. But Sulston himself, although nostalgic for the old-style research lab, was pulled into the large management structure tied to commercial organizations that was to shape this growing field. In 1989 he had gone "weak in the knees" at the sight of a grant for £1 million, but only three years later he was applying for a grant of £50 million.
Sulston's prose conveys a certain self-consciousness about his own involvement in this rapidly changing research world. He refers to having to dress in "unaccustomed suits" to face the press, maintaining his own self-image as a casual scientist. But he explains his decisions as the only way to "get the worm done at all." He frets about the focus on the "race" for profits rather than the potential benefits of the research. But, he asks, how does one impose limits on transnational corporations? He deplores the view of science as technological development and worries that scientists are encouraged to exploit their discoveries commercially regardless of social consequences. And he remains critical of patent practices, insisting that "The only reasonable way of dealing with the human genome sequence is to say that it belongs to us all—it is the common heritage of humankind."
Sulston concludes that science itself will be the poorer if commercial needs dictate our terms of reference. But seldom in this book does Sulston address the fact that scientists—especially the major actors that people his story—are people with choices and the possibility of making decisions that are not, after all, genetically predetermined.
The Common Thread maintains the characteristics of autobiography—in part, it is justification. But it has a twist. It is both the story of the writer and the story of a major scientific enterprise that has changed—perhaps forever—the way we think about science and scientists.