Russia Spurns Genome Effort

MOSCOW--As most nations rush to mine the riches of the human genome, Russia is moving to eviscerate its National Human Genome Program (NHGP). ScienceNOW has learned that the science ministry plans to strip the NHGP of its special funding status and fold the money into a general pot for basic research. Beyond imposing a 50% cut in direct spending on genome research, the move will affect millions of dollars in other research activities that the genome program helped to manage.

The NHGP was established in 1988. The fledgling effort received about $20 million a year over the next 2 years, on par with the U.S. program. Although funding ebbed after the Soviet Union's dissolution, NHGP researchers pioneered hybridization sequencing and were key players in the sequencing of human chromosomes 13 and 19. Dozens of Russians are involved in genome-related U.S. bioinformatics projects.

The new cuts threaten to derail projects involving approximately 400 researchers. Instead of a block grant, the NHGP's funds will now be part of a "special purpose" program at the science ministry covering 120 basic research areas. However, only a handful of topics--including tumor genomics and genome software development--cover core areas within the genome program. Each topic will be supported by a single project, with total spending on genome-related research not to exceed $180,000 in 2002. The ministry will appoint its own panel to choose meritorious projects.

"No one formally closed the NHGP or dismissed the council," says Lev Kisselev of the Engelhardt Institute of Molecular Biology in Moscow, who heads the NHGP council. "But we will no longer choose grantees, and we cannot decide whether the funding will go to a worthwhile project or not." A ministry spokesperson declined to comment.

Scientists rue what they see as the imminent demise of a program that maintained a sense of community for Russian genome researchers, sponsored workshops, and supported projects in key areas such as bioinformatics and population genetics. If the program were to die, says Evgeny Sverdlov of the Institute of Molecular Genetics in Moscow, "the infrastructure will die, and that will be very bad."

Related sites

The Russian Human Genome Program