Big data is big business in the life sciences, attracting lots of money and prestige. It’s also relatively young; the move toward big data can be traced back to 1990, when researchers joined together to sequence all three billion letters in the human genome. That project was completed in 2003 and since then, the life sciences have become a data juggernaut, propelled forward by sequencing and imaging technologies that accumulate data at astonishing speeds.
The National Ecological Observatory Network, funded by Congress with $434m, will equip 106 sites in the United States with sensors to gather ecological data all day, every day, for 30 years when it starts operating in three years. The Human Brain Project, supported by $1.6 billion from the European Union, intends to create a supercomputer simulation of a working human brain, including all 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses. The International Cancer Genome Consortium, 74 research teams across 17 countries spending an estimated $1 billion, is compiling 25,000 tumour genome sequences from 50 types of cancers.
But not all scientists think bigger is better. More than 450 researchers have already signed a public letter criticising the Human Brain Project, citing a “significant risk” that the project will fail to meet its goal. One neuroscientist called the project “a waste of money”, while another bluntly said the idea of simulating the human brain is downright “crazy”. Other big data projects have also been criticised, especially for cost and lack of results.