In the rain shadow of Big Science

Daniel Macarthur reports that massive sequencing or mapping projects can often have incidental fallout:

Over the last six months I've heard four separate researchers note in presentations or conversations that they have completely abandoned one or more large-scale sequencing projects, since any data they generate would be made largely or entirely obsolete by 1000 Genomes. In at least one case this has meant setting aside projects on which considerable work has already been done, which will now almost certainly never be published. In other cases the scientists are putting a whole project on hold while they wait for the 1000 Genomes data to be released.
I gather from informal conversations I had at AGBT last week that previous big genetics projects had a similar effect: many research groups held off disease gene mapping studies while they waited for the completion of the Human Genome Project, and large-scale SNP discovery and genotyping studies were similarly delayed while labs anxiously awaited data from the HapMap project.

Remember in the competition for grants; there is a huge risk that R01 and other large NIH grants will fail to be renewed. Investigators are on average 40 years old before they get their first R01 grant, and that doesn’t count the people who fall by the wayside, worn down by the relentless grant-seeking attrition.

So, if you had to devote limited resources to sequencing, would you risk duplicating efforts that are already going on? Even if your study population was more interesting in some way than the 1000 Genomes sample, there’s a high risk that your project won’t look nearly as interesting – as Science or Nature-worthy – as it would without the 1000 Genomes. Better to devote your limited resources in some other way.

I thought it might be worth pointing out that the 1000 Genomes is not an unusual case. Macarthur mentions other Big Genomics projects, but the same phenomenon happens in paleoanthropology. Imagine you’re a graduate student who wants to work on the pelvic anatomy of early hominids. If you can’t secure access to specimens, you’re dead in the water. But some of the important specimens, which are generally known to be important to the topic, remain unpublished. You’re waiting for Big Paleoanthropology to finish its project before you can move on. Better pick another piece of anatomy.

So I would say it’s not a unique feature of the scale of genomics projects – any big collaborative scientific project has the potential of casting a rain shadow, which dries up funding and opportunities for certain kinds of related work. If you’re not in the big project, you’ll just have to wait, or find something else to do.