Did the failure of genomics doom the US economy?

By Felix Salmon
June 14, 2010
Mike Mandel has an interesting nominee for the most significant economic event of the past decade: the failure of the Human Genome Project to become the medical and financial blockbuster that everybody expected tend years ago.

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Mike Mandel has an interesting nominee for the most significant economic event of the past decade: the failure of the Human Genome Project to become the medical and financial blockbuster that everybody expected ten years ago.

If the project had met its expectations, says Mandel, we might be looking at spending much less money on treating incurable diseases like cancer and diabetes; we would have created a lot more great jobs in the pharma industry; and the US would have a trade surplus in pharmaceuticals, rather than a trade deficit of more than $30 billion.

Still, hope springs eternal, for Mandel, at least:

Here’s how I see it: The U.S, and more broadly the “advanced” countries, did what they were supposed to. They invested heavily in the cutting-edge new technology, biotech, which promised to make the biggest difference in the most important areas–health, food, energy. The research has gone great, tremendous progress has been made. Commercialization thus far has sporadic–but the gap between research and commercialization is one which has been repeatedly bridged in the past. So I’d say that the odds are good that the Human Genome Project will have a significant economic impact over the next 5-10 years.

Mandel does worry whether “a misguided patent system” is a “structural impediment in the U.S. innovation system”; I’d be interested in that too. But the big picture is that the US made a multi-billion-dollar bet on genomics, and so far that bet has failed to pay off. That doesn’t mean it was a bad decision, but it’s still worth thinking about what might have been. Maybe we were just unlucky.

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