Tuesday, April 15, 2014

STEMing the tide, part III: A (new) 'modest proposal'

We have been writing about the push in this country to strengthen the STEM subjects in education, science, technology, engineering and math, because of their financial, career, and material role in society. This is being done explicitly because when money is tight, subjects like the arts, humanities, and social sciences don't pay direct benefits.  This can be seen as inexcusably crass, but in a tight job market and culture increasingly embedded in things technological, with weakening public support for education, it is an understandable trend.

We  happen to be Luddites in this regard, perhaps, because we think that our society should not back away from the more literary, esthetic, and contemplative aspects of life.  This is not snobbery on our part, or at least not only that, thinking that everybody ought to love watching opera or reading the Iliad. The point is a societal one.  Much of our culture, such as pop music, sports, video games, chat sites, and the like are called 'popular' in part because everybody likes them (opera once was 'popular'). But the point here is that you don't need formal education to be exposed to them, indulge in them, or appreciate them for their values.

Appreciation of broader aspects of life, such as the 'finer' literature and arts, history, philosophical and anthropological thought, and the like is much more complex and often out of modern vernacular, technical, complex--even boring.  But exposure to them is as greatly enhanced by formal education, just as is the case for STEM subjects.  They have snob value in our social upper crust, but they have their aspects of value and appeal that might benefit and edify the lives of many more.

Here 'education' refers first to K-12. The current way to describe topics is to group the fashionable ones under the rubric STEM and then largely dismiss the others by omission--let them be nameless!  School districts are, we regularly read, shrinking or abandoning their music and arts programs, teaching of classics and the like, because they cost money, while adding pre-college specialty courses such as calculus. In a nutshell, this is based on our cultural obsession with money above all things, because these are the subjects, we are told, that industry wants and that make money for them and thus their employees.

But if being an industrial chemist or mechanical engineer pleases the wallet, we rarely hear that they please the soul.  We have not heard of a single serious-sized school district that has abandoned its sports programs, such as football or basketball, which are quite expensive, to augment the arts.

Universities and perhaps many colleges, are racing onto (or is it 'down' to?) the same money-driven bandwagon. Abandoning part of their mission to 'educate' informed citizens, they are widely shrinking or even sometimes running completely away from the non-STEM areas (but not, of course, football or basketball).

The scientific data on successful, healthy aging
I just returned from a workshop at the National Research Council, underwritten by NIH's National Institute on Aging (NIA), to discuss what we have learned about the basis of longevity and healthy lifespan experiences.  An objective was to provide advice to the NIA on directions of future ways to invest their resources, based on what we have learned from what has been supported heretofore.  The results, in a central area related to the question at hand, were in fact major and clear--and should provide equally clear directions for future NIA investment.

Health is a biological phenomenon (even mental health, of course, since the mind is a biological organ). The approach to human lifespan, longevity, health and life-course experience relates to the causes of negative as well as positive experience.  We should use our research technologies to find and identify the causes of either, so we can intervene with the negative and reinforce the positive.

In this case, the working model, in our scientific age that puts technology first, has been that ill health causes social and psychological decline. If you are sick, a biological and in that sense technical state, you cannot hold a job, may be involved in abusive domestic situations, become depressed, then invest badly in food or other resources and the like.  If you are sick, you may be more likely to be overweight, shorter, more likely to drink too much or to smoke.  So we have a plague of people in whom to search for the misguided cells, so we can alter their behavior.

Surprisingly, however, the reported research has shown, rather clearly and in both humans and other animal models (in particular, findings in other primates in the wild were reported at this meeting), that quite the opposite is true:  Social standing and cultural milieu are major, primary determinates of life-course health and experience. This even moreso than money itself!  Longevity and even height is in a strong sense determined by the degree of satisfaction or control you feel in your life, your social position, and even physical resources (incomes) do not over-ride the social effects.  Excepting of course strong harmful genetic effects in a small fraction of people, disease and lifespan causal are mediated largely by these aspects of social environment which, in turn, affect your health prospects. If you're born on the wrong side of the tracks, you're fate is largely sealed.

Since similar results were reported in several aspects and respects and even other species, one need not worry about the details, which seem to be generally small relative to the main picture.  The details needn't be studied to death.  Instead--we paid for the research, the research was very carefully and well done, and we got a clear result!  The question has largely been answered, and we now know how best to invest future resources most effectively for life-course improvement.

But the answer will surprise you!

Our 'modest proposal'
In 1729, Jonathan Swift saw a problem of the widespread lives of poverty among the downtrodden in Ireland, and suggested a solution:  they should gain income by selling their excess children (of which there were many), to be cooked in various culinary ways to satisfy the rich.  Many savory recipes were provided.

Carve, saute, and don't forget the sauce.  Drawing by Dore

That essay was a vicious satirical critique of societal inequity in Swift's time, and we (living in more civilized times, we generally suppose) would never think to suggest that kind of solution to the offensive, growing inequity in our society today.  But we do have a modest suggestion for today, based on our National Institutes of Health living up to its word, and using the results of research it sponsors to improve our society's lot.

The non-STEM parts of our educational system address quality of life issues that have to do with your assessment of the world, sense of well-being, ability to integrate understanding of civil life and across different realms of human thinking.  People with higher levels of senses of integration and well-being will be better able (as the research shows) to negotiate society and this will lead to better prospects and better health and longer life.

Of course, knowledge of the STEM subjects is important in this.  But we are already pouring resources there, clearly with more to come.  But we are pulling the plug on the non-STEM subjects that are associated with giving you a shot at being on the better side of the tracks--better and more equitable places in society, and which, we now know thanks to NIA research, lead to longer and healthier lives. This quantitatively and qualitatively trumps the relatively smaller, and consequent rather than causal effects of the various high-technology, costly things we spend funds on in relation to the pandemic diseases like heart disease, stroke, obesity-related diseases and so on.

So: what the NIA should do is to redirect its funds from these very sexy technological research approaches to life-course issues (like GWAS and so many other Big Data fashionable fields), and urgently pour these resources instead into intervening in the actual major causes of impaired lives.  NIA should underwrite the improvement of K-12 education nationwide, and should endow non-STEM programs in universities, conditional on those areas being retained as serious-level requirements for graduation.

If we let this recipe cook for a decade or two we'd have a more sophisticated, knowledgable, intellectually resourceful and more savory equitable society with more peace of mind.  And the populus would, as a direct consequence, have more intellectual resources to engage in creative and innovative science and technology, with the economic benefits that go with that. As a result, the rates of our common chronic diseases, including mental deterioration, and their associated misery and costs would be way down.

The diseases that would be left would be the truly biological or genetic or clear-cut environmentally caused instances of these diseases, on which cases focused research (rather than just big-data collection) might have a reasonable shot at devising cures and prevention.

That is our modest proposal for how we should use the results of the research we pay for (but we dare to suggest that it's not how we're using them now).


Manoj Samanta said...

"This is being done explicitly because when money is tight"

Well, money is not tight for military adventures, the giant elephant in the room.

Essentially, we have two problems - (i) we are pouring enormous money into wars in time of greatest peace and cutting education, (ii) within education, we are doing triage to arts to keep science.

Now, of course one thing I noticed is that no academic likes to point out (i) ever since Obama became president.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, many people do point out that a lot of research could be done for the cost of a singular nuclear submarine or stealth bomber, etc. One sad reality is that we do need a military, and by and large they are not evil people but seriously committed to protecting you and me.
The further reality is further that funds will be spent on this, and to some extent must be.

Good science should be wasteful in that most potentially important studies will turn up empty--if they are too safe, as is widely the case today, they cost a lot but mainly turn out sawdust. If they are too purely technical or generic, and this is the big problem I think with the fad for "Big Data", they have low return.

But when we know that lifestyle rather than, say, genes or single dietary components predominate in the generation of more, and earlier, chronic disease, and yet can't pull the plug on relatively mindless continual probing as we're doing now, we are guilty of supporting a professor-welfare state.

While of course pouring money by NIH into the arts, which would really be cogent for their purported mission, won't ever happen, it shows our lopsided priorities as a society. Or, perhaps more realistically, it is a contemporary reflection of the differential control of resources that always is part of complex society.