Did the human genome project really have a trillion dollar impact?

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 the economic benefits of the government’s investment in the field over a longer time frame, between 1988 and 2012, were even more vast—a $1 trillion return.

The initial analysis raised some criticism and skepticism from economists due to issues with the methodology, and the new report seems destined to do the same.

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“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.

The report was funded by United for Medical Research, an organization that represents research institutions, health advocates, and industry, and a contribution from Life Technologies Corp. Life Technologies is a company that makes genome sequencing technologies, and many of the groups represented by United for Medical Research have benefitted from the government’s investment in the genome.

“This report illustrates the vital role that key federal research funding plays in growing the U.S. economy, creating new industries and innovative technologies and producing diagnostics and treatments that can save lives,” Carrie Wolinetz, president of United for Medical Research, said in a press release.

Dr. Jerome P. Kassirer, a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine who has been vocal about conflicts of interest in medicine, said in an interview that although he does not doubt that the human genome project has had major economic repercussions, he does not know what to make of the report’s findings.

“I would never be satisfied with something as sketchy as this; the point is this is not sufficient hard evidence on which to base any conclusion – for me,” Kassirer said.

In particular, he noted that one thing the report examined were the employment effects of the genome project—an area in which he noticed a kind of circular logic going on in counting up the economic benefits.

“One person’s income is another person’s expense, so someone makes money, for example, on selling the ability to sequence someone’s genome, and that can be described as income. And then someone also has paid money for that,” Kassirer said. “So I have no idea what to make of it.”

Lane said that trumpeting such findings may actually be detrimental to public perception of the purpose of scientific research and distort the public’s expectation of the reason to make such investments.

“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. “That’s not what science is about. Science is about making mistakes and learning from the mistakes and what we know.”

Science can be an economic engine, spurring new industries and economic benefits, Lane said, adding “that’s not what the government should be betting on.”

The human genome project has been put forth as an example that a new government initiative to map the activity in the brain, launched this spring, will follow. If the same economic metrics are ultimately applied to measure whether that investment is a success, the rate of return on investment may need to be astoundingly high—regardless of what the contributions are to scientific knowledge.