What is it about?

This is a STS(science and technology studies)/historical analysis of the reason why the Protein 3000 Project, one of the largest of this sort in Japan's post-war science policy, has been publicly regarded as failure, while it has actually attained its initial goal of analyzing 3000 protein structures, one third of the global target. The high-throughput analysis of protein structures was believed to be the next frontier of biological research after the successful completion of the Human Genome Project. This paper pays specific attention to the complex dynamics of "expectation" raised by the earlier promise made by the leaders of the project for establishing a global hub of post-genomic research center in Japan that was once expected to be open for international use-a dream that has never come true. The highlight of this paper is the consequences of the dark side of such dynamics of expectation that not only has failed to accomplish the earlier version of the plan but also has given rise to enmity among the communities of researchers who once supported the earlier plan. The dynamics of disappointment and even resentment then was reinforced by a number of additional factors such as the radical change of the administrative structure related to the execution of this project, and the intrinsically ambiguous status of structural genomics, namely the application of genomic approach to the study of protein structures, about which some believe personal expertise is needed beyond the proposed method of high-throughput analysis.

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Why is it important?

This project itself is a sort of the counteroffensive from the Japanese government's life science policy after the so called "Defeat in the Genome", namely Japan's failed attempt to contributing to the Human Genome Project where they had once successfully started to developed the basic high-throughput technology for genomic research. Behind this was the tough competition between two sides of the Pacific Ocean, in the form of the trade war since 80s, related to the issue of who would control the emerging bio-industry. Such tension and competition has been poorly attended in the existing literature of science and technology studies, largely focusing on collaboration around the Atlantic Ocean only. Also missed was the attention to the possible mismatch between the genomic method to the analysis of protein structures, about which serious division of opinions was observed between bio-informaticians and structural biologists in the both sides of the Pacific Ocean. The fact that the Protein 3000 Project was conducted without real consensus of what structural genomics meant among its participants may lead us to think that it then played the role of boundary object, while my analysis also shows there are quite a different dimensions of this concept that should be further developed.


What is unique about this project is that this is not only an extremely intriguing case for observing the actual transition from its initial plan, to final execution and assessment, but also how things may go astray through a number of unexpected factors as well. The bitter lesson of the construction of such negative evaluation vis-a-vis its actual success of attaining its initial goal lies in the very failure of coordinating the mutually contradictory expectations among the participants, which then was aggravated both by the complex administrative changes as well as the tense atmosphere of international competition. Behind these also lie the very cleavage of what is the proper method of biological research, the clash of a sort of two different epistemic cultures that could not find a proper point of agreement: this problem seems to still linger on around us even at present.

Professor Masato Fukushima
the University of Tokyo

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Constructing failure in big biology: The socio-technical anatomy of Japan’s Protein 3000 Project, Social Studies of Science, October 2015, SAGE Publications,
DOI: 10.1177/0306312715612146.
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