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The price of knowledge

Edward A. Larkin | Wednesday, September 15, 2010

While discussing wasteful spending during the 2008 presidential campaign, Sarah Palin remarked that, “sometimes these projects have little or nothing to do with the public good, things like fruit fly research in Paris.” To some, this may indeed seem like government largesse at its worst. However, while it may have scored a few political points, it reflects a sad misunderstanding of the underlying science. Palin doesn’t reflect upon the fact that flies have much of the same genetic makeup as humans, acknowledge the increasingly multinational nature of science, or point out that society is fortunate that we harvest and study mutant flies rather than human children. However, her point tangentially touches upon a more nuanced issue: what kind of research should the public fund?

Most people would probably say that scientific knowledge is good for its own sake. This sentiment, however, doesn’t work quite so neatly on a national scale, with limited resources and competing priorities. Tangible services to the public and relatively low tax rates are both prioritized by politicians over basic science research. When the government does fund research, taxpayers expect bang for their buck. This is the reason that research that is putatively oriented towards medical advances is more generously funded than basic research.

 Many scientists use this prioritization of medically oriented research to game the system. When applying for grants to the National Institutes of Health (NHI), which awards the lion’s share of public grant money, they emphasize connections, oftentimes tenuous, between their research and major diseases in their grant applications. Once they get the grant money, that’s often the last that is heard about the disease from their lab. Many scientific papers in leading journals end with a vague assertion of better therapies without any sort of specificity whatsoever. Is this fair to us? The question of research funding — especially disease — oriented research versus purely basic science — is certain to intensify in the upcoming years as the federal budget deficit is inevitably dealt with.

The situation, at first glance, seems to be in need of reform. Some would prefer an across the board increase in basic research, regardless of medical applications. They argue that a more intimate knowledge of fundamental processes, regardless of their immediate effects, will eventually lead to better medicine. Putting such knowledge in the hands of doctors, drug companies, engineers, and other scientists will engender more effective research and allow others to apply it in medical contexts. Academia, they argue, has an important role in basic discovery, not necessarily its application. Many of the major advances in science come from the most basic research, and we would be naïve to think that we’ve advanced in our knowledge to the point that our current frameworks are foolproof.

Others think differently, asserting that advances in engineering, computer power, and basic biological knowledge have made it such that we don’t need to understand things more thoroughly; we should go about curing disease now. They argue that there’s more value in, for example, finding new strategies to make drugs work better rather than finding new proteins associated in cancer. Money should be funneled towards the screening of gigantic numbers of compounds to treat disease, even if we don’t understand the way they work. Biologists should work like engineers, seeking to create simplicity out of complexity. The logic of both positions is hard to deny.

However, the right solution may actually be to keep the status quo. When applying for funding, scientists should be forced to think, even if cursorily, about the possible medical benefits of their research. Even if the study of disease does not directly motivate their work, this ensures that research does not stray far from the major telos of the NIH — to “enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce the burdens of illness”. While biomedical knowledge has exploded, there is still a lot to learn about the way life works at the microscopic level — basic research is overwhelmingly necessary. Even if not directly linked to actually curing disease, it will help inform drug discoverers, biological engineers, and computer scientists when they try to both model and attack diseases. That being said, we should be careful to foster the growth of the new fields that emerge from our sizable knowledge base, which seek to apply rather than understand.

Medicine should be the overarching goal of biological research, especially when taxpayers foot the bill. That’s why they foot the bill — in the hope that they’ll be able to spend more precious moments with family members, to know that not all is lost when a loved one is diagnosed with a brutal disease. Knowing for the sake of knowledge, while certainly desirable in the abstract, doesn’t reflect the real-world fact that knowledge, like everything else, has a price tag.


Edward A. Larkin is a senior with a double major in Biological Sciences and Classical Civilization. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.