While his contributions are astounding, many people associate Venter with his ego. He has attempted to patent genes identified in his studies, leading to a loss of funding from the NIH and public disapproval (Expressed sequence tags, 2006). Later, out of frustration with the slow progress of the Human Genome project, he started his own private genome project through Celera Genomics (McElheny, 2010). While Celera started out sequencing composites of DNA samples, Venter later switched the project over to sequence his own DNA samples (Singer, 2007). These controversies have led many to label Venter as egotistical or greedy. However, Venter defends that his main goal has always been to accelerate scientific discovery. When he felt that the public sector couldn't provide him with the resources he needed, he moved to the private sector.
Venter's accomplishments are plentiful. Alongside synthesizing the first synthetic life, he also promoted the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition, and leads the way in synthetic biology. However, most of his accomplishments and contributions seem to be tainted by his ego. Much of his exploration is greeted by a multitude of extrinsic factors: public acknowledgment/rewards, external evaluation, criticism, controversy. While some may not personally like him, all should be able to admit the tremendous impact he has had within multiple scientific domains. From personalized medicine to clean fuel production, his creations and findings have revolutionized multiple fields and paved the way for further advancement. Many argue that the public Human Genome Project would not have finished as quickly as it did without the competition from Celera Genomics.
So what motivates Venter? Is intrinsic motivation more "pure" than extrinsic motivation? He definitely has plenty of both, and I'd like to think that one isn't better than the other... just different. While we'd all like to think that intrinsic motivation offers a more honest sense of creativity, Venter shows us the raw power of extrinsic motivation. Maybe he does have an ego, but that ego drives the entire scientific community to race to be better. He doesn't let anything get in his way, and his determination motivates other companies and projects to move full force ahead as well. Not only does Venter find his own methods to pursue his goals, but he has fundamentally altered the way his domain works as well.
- Collins, A., & Amabile, T. 1999. Motivation and creativity. In Rovert J. Sternberg (Ed.) Handbook of Creativity. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Expressed sequence tags lack substantial and specific utility unless underlying gene function is identified.—In re Fisher, 421 F.3d 1365 (Fed. Cir. 2005)". 2006 Harvard Law Review. 119(8): 2604–2611.
- McElheny, V. 2010. Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project. Basic Books: Arizona.
- Rogers, 1954. Towards a theory of creativity. ETC: A Review of General Semantics. 12: 249-260.
- Shreeve, J. 2005. The Blueprint of Life.
- Singer, E. 2007. After leaving Celera in 2002, Venter announced that much of the genome that had been sequenced there was his own. Technology Review.