Big is beautiful. That was the message of post-second-world-war science. The model was the Manhattan Project to build the first atom bombs. When hostilities ended, it continued with larger and larger particle accelerators, to probe matter at smaller and smaller scales—and bigger telescopes to do that probing at the largest scales imaginable. And, of course, there was the space race, which at its height in the mid-1960s absorbed more than 4% of America’s federal budget. After the Apollo Moon landings it went on to spawn the space shuttle and the International Space Station, as well as a programme of uncrewed missions to explore the nether reaches of the solar system.
Nice for scientists, then. But so 20th century. For all of these projects were essentially about physics. By the late 1980s biologists were gaining confidence that the next century would belong to them. Biotechnology—the ability to tweak DNA itself to make useful products—was taking wing. The number of biologists in training was booming. Some in the field were looking enviously at the physicists and asking themselves where they might queue up to dip their bread in the gravy.
The answer, after the usual political haggling, was the Human Genome Project (HGP), an American initiative globalised through the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium of 20 laboratories, eight of which were outside the United States. Though cheap by the standards of big physics (its projected cost of $3bn would barely have bought a couple of shuttle launches to the space station), it gave biology a taste of the big time.