Thursday, February 14, 2013

The $140 fix

In his State of the Union address to congress on Feb 12, President Obama laid out many ambitions for his next term.  It was a speech to the country and to Congress, and he stated many things he wanted to use the government for, in particular, goosing up the economy in various ways.

Like other  Presidents before him, and perhaps as is necessary given the complexity of his job and the topics he must deal with, Obama relies on lines and catch-phrases and selected data that he's been fed by advisers.  Often, as here, they represent vested interests within the Federal government.  For example, the Education secretary is bound to recommend this or that specific thing to fix our education problems.  The Energy department will recommend equally pressing needs, as will Defense and so on.

One needs to beware of the selectivity and promotional nature of factoids being cited, so as to at least be savvy about what they mean and why they're being cited--and of course to be aware that they are advocacy.  The President can only say, marionette-like, what he's told by people whose judgment he trusts, but they often do the same, passing things down the line to the primary advocates.  Just as lobbyists do provide expertise, along with their advocacy, advocacy isn't entirely self-serving.  But it can come pretty close and in a sense it's the President's, Congress's, and our responsibility to make the judgments about what is being said and what we believe are important.

Must everything we do be crass and venal?
In this context, Obama stated that the effort to 'map' the human genome has 'returned' $140 for every dollar ("--every dollar") that was spent on it.  How great!  But what does that suggest in a not very subtle way? That the science investment has value because it is good for business.  If that's the case, and apparently a great many people feel that it is, why not call it business socialism?  Or a welfare system for businesses and universities?

NIH isn't unique in playing the economy card, as well as the 'you will never get sick if you give us funds' card (and Obama repeated things NIH or others had told him along those lines, too).  It's how our system is constructed, perhaps.

Whether, when, or to what extent investment in NIH leads to a fully functional immortality is separate from the justification of funding on the grounds that it's good for business.  Obama isn't qualified to discuss whether to 'map' the human genome is the best or even a good way to remove disease from the face of the earth.  A State of the Union address may not be the place for subtle discourse.  But if we are just going to justify it on business grounds, we might as well not worry about whether, say, billions of dollars are spent on  projects that don't generate a single result, or projects that use mouse models that are totally inappropriate, or studies that grow ever larger when we know they'll find ever tinier effects, or projects that grow ever-larger research empires at the expense of intellectual freedom and the support of young scientists who could, with different distribution of resources, perhaps think more freely and have an even better chance of making discoveries that, yes, were good for the economy.

Our society perhaps simply can't be made to temper its exaggerations in support of vested interests, but we think that's a shame.  It systematically replaces substance with label, and numbs us from critical thinking.  If every word in our language must be a superlative, we'll all end up in semantic wonderland, like Lake Woebegon, all above average.

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