Politics, Information Technology, and Genomics

Pharmaceutical research meets the cathedral or the bazaar?

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March 4th, 2009

Or does it meet neither? Recently, Merck announced that it would be putting a vast database of highly consistent data about the biology of disease, as well as software tools and other resources to use it into the “public domain”. But on the web site run by the non-profit organization set up to manage these resources, Sage, it states “An incubation period of three to five years is anticipated in which new project data are generated, critical tools for building and mining disease models are developed and governing rules for sharing, accessing, and contributing to the platform are established.” So are the resources in the public domain or will there be rules for sharing and accessing them? Will the resources be available during the incubation period? Will only the resources generated during the incubation period be put into the public domain? How do they plan to get pharmaceutical companies to participate? Finally, does this look like a ton of publications to you? (Sorry, it has to be said: industry perspective of publications is a world apart from the academic community perspective.) Without some answers to these questions, this seems like little more than a company trying to get some positive PR out of what amounts to reducing staff to cut costs.

Update: Derek Lowe has a good discussion of the many challenges to the success of ventures like Sage.
Update2: Nature news article about Sage.

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6 Responses to “Pharmaceutical research meets the cathedral or the bazaar?”

  1. Trevor Covert Says:

    There are more details about Sage available at this article:


    I had the chance last year to meet with Eric Schadt and I was very impressed with his work. I also know that their group at Rosetta was a huge boon for Merck, and Eric was a crucial part of their success.

    I hope their new non-profit venture is just as productive.

  2. Trevor, the Xconomy story is actually the first link in the post (click on “announced”). It is exactly that kind of story that makes me even more skeptical about this whole venture. There is precious little information about what this is all about; and what is out there is riddled with buzz words, e.g., cloud, crowd sourcing, open source, public domain, social networking, Facebook, etc. It would be great if it works, but at present, the notion is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

  3. David,

    Sorry for missing the link.

    I agree that the Sage venture has not produced anything of significance yet, and it does sound over-hyped without much actual material on what exact form it will take. I’ll give it some time, though, for them to get around to pushing this forward and before I pass judgment.

    One concern is that they are coming out of Merck, and that had to have left some lasting effects in terms of their mindset when it comes to “open” science.

  4. We covered the closure of Rosetta and this recent development in Nature.


    (The first link within gets you to our longer feature story – sub req’d, sorry.)

    Your skepticism and questions are good, but I’d be pretty proud to have a publication list like that for 2008. The process is not new and has traditionally had a lot of people excited (his past work is very highly cited FWIW). Still it looks as if it isn’t exciting enough for Merck to keep the two star players behind it on its team.

  5. Well, I guess I learned how to get some comments on the blog: provide a not fully informed, fully thought-out opinion. To be clear, I was not belittling the publications or, in truth, the number of publication. I was criticizing the way they (and everything else about Sage) have been presented. Thus far, it is not a scientific venture, it is a PR venture. It sounds more like a dot-com in search of venture capital than a serious scientific platform. Even the Nature news article, while recycling some of the buzz words, introduces a new one: Wikipedia. By my count, Sage will be the open source, public domain, social networking/Facebook, crowd-sourced Wikipedia, Google of biology. That’s a tall order. As someone who has been in the free software trenches for a 15 years, I can tell you that words matter. And there are just too many words that have been rendered meaningless by overuse that are being applied to this venture.

    That said, I agree with the Nature editors on one thing: MacBeth.

  6. [...] have been drawn by members of and commentators on various industries, from tech to healthcare to pharmaceuticals to the newspaper [...]

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