Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Reasons to support, or to oppose initiatives in science

It should be clear by now that we won't hold our tongues when it comes to editorializing about how money is spent in science. We hope to be constructive rather than destructive critics where we express opposition, as we have in regard to major lobbying for biobanks to bring about the miracle of 'personalized medicine'.

There are at least three basic criteria on which it is fair as well as realistic to judge proposed science projects:

1. Scientific merit: is the proposal justified by the known facts?
2. Social politics: is the project well-justified in terms of promised benefits to society, or primarily just good for the science establishment?
3. Social priorities: when resources are limited, and science is supported by the public, is the proposal justified relative to other things that might be done (or the funds used for something other than research)?

The World Bank, no bastion of liberal politics, is estimating that 200,000 to 400,000 people will die (in Africa alone) as a result of the loss of foreign aid (nutrition, vaccinations, health care, &c) due to the economic crisis the West is visiting upon them (Nicholas Kristoff has an op/ed piece about this in today's New York Times). If this is so, it seems immoral and even socially inexcusable to be gearing up for manned trips to Mars, spending money on 'astrobiology', or spending fortunes on large DNA-based 'personalized medicine' campaigns that will mainly feed the research and pharmaceutical industries -- at least for the foreseeable future, even if they are ultimately as successful as promised. And, even if successful, as long as health care funding remains as inequitable as it is today in the US, it would be mainly the rich who will benefit from having their medicine personalized.

So, we object to this kind of spending on ethical grounds. Even if we believed in the scientific merit of biobanks or voyages to Mars (will cages be brought to Mars, to return Martians to Earth in?), they are not justified in the face of widespread disease and other human problems that could be ameliorated with the same funds.

As to priority, these kinds of projects can hardly be claimed to be the most important problems we should be studying, or the best approaches to studying them. It would be easy to name many more justifiable projects -- starting with more stress on truly genetic diseases, more intense efforts in regard to potential antibiotic resistant infectious diseases, nutritional programs for the poor at home and elsewhere, research on neglected tropical diseases and so on. But these problems don't have constituents with lobbyists and vested interests.

It's inevitable that people will disagree on how their tax money should be spent, and various aspects of self-interest will always be a factor. But, when huge amounts of money are locked up in projects based on demonstrably questionable science, at the expense of issues with more likely payoff and better scientific underpinnings, it's especially frustrating.

And, if history is any guide, the most likely thing is that the Martians will carry some disease that'll wipe us out .... or else they'll die of our diseases as soon as they land, a real waste of money. And they probably won't even speak English (which would anger at least a substantial fraction of theAmerican public that pays for the expedition).

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