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Free Market != Sophisticated Healthcare February 2, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science, societal commentary.
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The older boy knows someone who, on his blog, posted a link to information about a very sophisticated and cool medical widget. Then this person turned around and said something to the effect of, “Innovations like this are why we need to keep healthcare private.” I bet the older boy that 1) this device was developed at a university, probably state-funded and 2) the development of the device was probably done with some sort of federal funding.

I wish I’d made the bet for cash. It turns out that after asking the internet, I was right: state funded university with department of defense grantitude.

I was rather blown away that someone would make such an obvious mistake. But then, I’m a scientist and an engineer who knows people both in industry and academia. I’m probably more familiar with the process of technical innovation than the average joe. (In fact, I’m probably going to be discussing that Friday on http://engineerblogs.org.)

There are a lot of people that have misconceptions about what real scientist is or does. My guess is, that most people, when they hear the word scientist, think of the following:

(As a huge tangent, my ex-husband’s last name was Brown, and I was very reluctant to change my last name after we divorced. I wanted very badly for people to call me “Doc Brown” once I earned my PhD.)

Back to the present, we all know and love the stereotypical mad scientist: he (always a he) toils away in his basement to create some amazing gadget that will miraculously change the way human beings interact with their world. Bonus points for crazy hair.

Unfortunately, this is a very naive and pretty remote possibility. Since World War II, scientific research has been recognized as being something that our country can and should invest in order to put us “ahead of the game”. Serious science research, whether it is paradigm shifting or not, can seldom be done in the basement or garage. There is seldom “low hanging fruit” such that research doesn’t require a significant investment of time, money, personnel, and capital equipment.

Probably with the exception of electronics, which is riding a huge wave of capitalistic materialism, many of the things that have enhanced our standard of living over the past few decades has been the investment of public money into public institutions. This is especially true with health and medicine. Free market healthcare may make it easier to get access to things like MRI, but much of the initial research into medical technology comes from federal and state governments. Think about it: many of the most advanced, cutting edge medical research is done at hospitals with university medical school affiliations.

It is depressing to see that the US, especially the newly elected republican congress critters, are trying to drastically cut federal research funding while places like China doing exactly the opposite. Believe it or not, I’ve already heard about researchers going to China to do their work because they’re finding it easier to get funding and equipment time. China has seen that investment in science works, so they’re following suit. They’re being a lot smarter than we are.

I remember in the 80s (yeah, I’m that old) when everyone was so impressed that Tang was something that NASA developed. In fact, NASA is still making efforts to let people know how the organization benefits them. However, as obvious as it may seem to those of us in science, the average person may not really have a clue how important NSF, NIH, and other funding organizations are to both economic and technological leadership. It almost seems like, if they could afford it, these institutions need to be banging their own drum a bit louder, letting people know how important they are to everyday life.

But sadly, the reality is that most people don’t know or don’t care about where all our modern conveniences come from. They keep being told that the “free market” is what makes it all possible and that government spending is wasteful and useless. They believe it, and so they don’t realize how badly we as a nation are shooting ourselves in the foot if we fail to maintain or increase spending in research of all stripes.

Next time you see a gadget and think that it’s an example of what makes the United States a great nation, try to remember that there’s a good chance that gadget had some of its origins in public funding. By trying to end such funding, we are destroying our scientific and technological legacy.

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Comments»

1. Fluxor - February 2, 2011

If gadgetry are good examples of a nation’s greatness, Japan would win hands down followed closely by South Korea.

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2. Luke Holzmann - February 3, 2011

That’s hilarious, Cherish. And a great reminder.

I think the reason people–like me–are so distrustful of government spending is that, by and large, everything we hear about is negative. Partly that’s the way our news system works: We only really care about the horror stories, right? Million dollar government grant finds that picking ones nose in public is repulsive to some people. Or: Public middle schools shell out $12,000-25,000 per pupil per year.

Do you happen to know of a place where we can see the medical/technological advances made by government funding compared to those made by more private enterprise? I would find such a document fascinating, and encouraging (no matter how it played out). It would be even better if the “advances” were shown with their relative positive/negative effect on our lives… but that would be nearly impossible because of how complex everything is. Nuclear warheads: Good–helped solidify the end of a war. Terrible–killed tons of people and have long-lasting negative effects on those societies. GMOs: Good–make food cheaper and more accessible. Bad–apparently really not very good for us at all. That kind of thing.

Ah well. I like information. Sadly, it’s really hard to get in a succinct form.

~Luke

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mareserinitatis - February 3, 2011

For one thing, there’s a lot of it. NIH has a news page at http://www.nih.gov/news/, and NSF has a ‘discoveries’ page at http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/.

I think there area a couple problems:

1 – Often the media is not good at conveying the potential benefits of a lot of scientific research, usually because reporters may not understand it themselves or scientists are not good at conveying why it is important.

2 – There are a lot of people who think, “Why do we care why it works? I only care to know how it affects me personally.” Why should we spend money on something I think is stupid? Unfortunately, it’s a very narrow and somewhat self-serving point of view…and you never know if it may become important down the line.

3 – Likewise, there is no way to say for certain what research will turn up ‘useful’ stuff and what won’t. If we could predict the future, we certainly wouldn’t need research! But a lot of people like guaranteed results, and that attitude is turning up in funding agencies that are being more and more conservative with what they want to fund.

But it’s a very serious problem because a lot of people greatly oversimplify the process, most likely because our preconceived notions of how science ‘works’. They don’t understand why all the money and equipment is necessary because we did ‘science’ in school and all we needed was some food coloring, baking soda, and vinegar. 🙂

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3. Lynn - February 4, 2011

Really interesting post. 🙂

As for stereotypes, I’ve been hearing from a relative that scientists who work in climatology are all shills who say there’s global warming in exchange for bribes from Al Gore. From others I know that scientists in the field of geology are paid to lie about the age of the earth. I’ve decided that I need a chart to know the real scientists from the fake ones. 😦

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4. Lynn - February 4, 2011

Luke: “Do you happen to know of a place where we can see the medical/technological advances made by government funding compared to those made by more private enterprise?”

In pharmaceuticals research, both public and private funding is used to get many drugs to market. Publicly-funded university labs play vital roles in the process.

Private investors won’t fund companies that conduct research which benefits a small patient population because the cost of the studies exceed any possible return on investment. We actually know someone who is trying to pursue research for treatment for sickle-cell disease, which generally affects a relatively small number of mostly African Americans with low incomes. Without public funding, the research in cases such as these would never be done – and people like these would never be helped.

Luke: “It would be even better if the ‘advances’ were shown with their relative positive/negative effect on our lives.”

I remember that Sarah Palin learned this one the hard way. In a speech, she made fun of $750,000 “in earmarks” spent on research that has “little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like (olive) fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not,” oblivious to the purpose of the funding which was to save our $85 million-dollar U.S. olive industry from the recent establishment of the olive fruit fly. (Even if you don’t personally eat olives, the collapse of whole industries affects us all negatively.) And Palin (mom to autistic child, Trig) was also oblivious to findings from other publicly-funded “fruit fly studies” that are leading to greater understanding of autism spectrum disorders.

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