Look at media reports on the effort to sequence the entire human genome and you're bound to see one word time and time again: 'race'. An editorial in this week's Nature worries that the race theme is getting out of control. The editorial notes that the quest to sequence the human genome has already been likened to the cartoon 'Wacky Races', and warns that the race mentality could encourage a 'public slanging-match' between the teams competing to get there first.
But, as Nature concedes, this is a race. It has been a race ever since, in 1998, Craig Venter set up Celera Genomics and announced his intention to join to the effort to sequence the human genome. Since then more money has been pumped into the research on both sides of the public/private divide and the date of completion has been brought forward time and time again.
Of course races are nothing new in scientific research. Watson and Crick raced to discover the structure of DNA, desperate to announce their findings before rival teams. The Cambridge pair's determination to reach their goal before anyone else did demonstrates that even where money isn't the motivating factor, getting there first is enormously important in science and medicine. Because, as we all know, no-one remembers the runner up.
Competitiveness in scientific research isn't necessarily a bad thing. It might mean that corners are cut and results aren't checked properly. But it might also mean that a breakthrough that will benefit humankind is reached much more quickly.
And before we get too upset about the media's propensity for playing up the 'race' to sequence the human genome, we might do well to remember how such research used to be presented. Looking back just one year to press reports on the Human Genome Project, I discovered a number of articles promising that designer babies and even immortality were the inevitable outcomes of a sequenced human genome. I'm not sure which is worse: battles between genome researchers or the threat of superhumans!