The rate of advance of biomedical research is a matter of life and death for all of us. Therefore we should be concerned that biomedical research funding is under control of older scientists that younger scientists spend much of their career working for.
A new study by Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy illustrates a disconnect between government funding of biomedical research by young investigators and a novel standard by which to judge it: the Nobel Prize.
The study found the average age of biomedical researchers getting their first grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2008 was 42. Over the past 30 years, the average age of Nobel winners when they performed their groundbreaking research was 41.
So the younger scientists don't start getting their own direct funding until they are past their peak years of research productivity. That's dumb. They spend their younger years as grad students and (poorly paid) post docs. This puts their research directions much more under the control of (older) professors who run labs and have grants flowing to them. The young turk with a hunch does not always have the freedom to follow that hunch. Not good.
Labs can present much more credible research proposals if they've already done part of the work. Established labs with existing funding and a body of work come across as lower risk when they submit proposals. What's needed: set aside a substantial portion of research funding for younger scientists. A bucket of money for under 35s would help matters.
That should trouble those concerned about the United States' standing as a biomedical powerhouse, said Kirstin Matthews, first author of a paper published in the open-access journal PloS One by the nonprofit Public Library of Science. As older scientists retire over the next two decades, the nation needs to support the next generation of researchers or risk losing them to more sustainable careers, wrote Matthews and co-authors Vivian Ho, the James A. Baker III Institute Chair in Health Economics and a professor of economics; recent alumna Kara Calhoun and senior Nathan Lo, all of Rice.
"This is a bit controversial at a time when we're encouraging more people to get into science," said Matthews, a fellow in science and technology policy at the Baker Institute. "The gist is that we're dealing with a shrinking NIH budget; at best, we'll get the same budget year to year, adjusted for inflation. So how can we use the money most effectively?"
The trend is toward higher first age of funding. This trend is probably reducing the amount of highly innovative research.
In the past 30 years, the average age of biomedical researchers has steadily increased. The average age of an investigator at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) rose from 39 to 51 between 1980 and 2008. The aging of the biomedical workforce was even more apparent when looking at first-time NIH grantees. The average age of a new investigator was 42 in 2008, compared to 36 in 1980. To determine if the rising barriers at NIH for entry in biomedical research might impact innovative ideas and research, we analyzed the research and publications of Nobel Prize winners from 1980 to 2010 to assess the age at which their pioneering research occurred. We established that in the 30-year period, 96 scientists won the Nobel Prize in medicine or chemistry for work related to biomedicine, and that their groundbreaking research was conducted at an average age of 41—one year younger than the average age of a new investigator at NIH. Furthermore, 78% of the Nobel Prize winners conducted their research before the age of 51, the average age of an NIH principal investigator. This suggested that limited access to NIH might inhibit research potential and novel projects, and could impact biomedicine and the next generation scientists in the United States.
Again, the rate of advance of biomedical research is a matter of life and death for us all. We need the funding to go to people most likely to make big breakthroughs. Those people are younger than the people who currently get the research bucks.
DURHAM, N.C. –Exclusive licenses to gene patents, most of which are held by academic institutions and based on taxpayer-funded research, do more to block competition in the gene testing market than to spur the development of new technologies for gauging disease risk, say researchers at the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy (IGSP).
As single-gene tests give way to multi-gene or even whole-genome scans, exclusive patent rights could slow promising new technologies and business models for genetic testing even further, the Duke researchers say.
The findings emerge from a series of case studies that examined genetic risk testing for 10 clinical conditions, including breast and colon cancer, cystic fibrosis, and hearing loss. The studies appear April 14 in a special issue of Genetics in Medicine.
In seven of the conditions, exclusive licenses have been a source of controversy. But in no case was the holder of exclusive patent rights the first to market with a test.
DNA sequencing costs are getting so cheap that the rate of discovery of meaning for genetic differences is going up by orders of magnitude. The DNA data has become an enormous flood. A single study can find many genetic variants associated with a disease or metabolic difference.
Patents on genes have never made sense to me because they amount to discovering what already is happening. This isn't development of a new technique. There's no novelty of thought.
When full genome sequencing becomes cheap are genome sequencing services going to be required to hold back information about select sections of DNA that have patents on them? Will we have to pay extra to learn our full sequences? If so, that would be an outrage.
In his FY 2009 budget, released this morning, President George W. Bush calls to freeze the National Institutes of Health's budget at last year's level of about $29 billion while shaving more than $370 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2008 budget.
The president's budget also suggests decreasing research funding at the US Department of Agriculture by more than $350 million, but proposes increasing the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) budget by 5.7 percent over last year, giving the agency $2.4 billion in FY 2009.
A slow down in medical research increases our chances of getting killed by the diseases which pose far far larger threats to our lives than terrorists do. This spending cut comes in a context where the United States is burning $3 billion a week in Iraq toward a goal that will not substantially reduce our risk of death from terrorism.
The Bush defense budget increase is bigger than the total NIH budget. That $515.4 billion does not include the Iraq or Afghanistan war spending.
Bush on Monday proposed a $515.4 billion budget for the Defense Department's 2009 fiscal year, up 7.5 percent from this year and setting a record in dollar terms.
If your goal is to stop and reverse aging then take a hard look at the many government programs that spend in areas that could be cut back without pauperizing anyone. Social programs that allows healthy people to retire while they still could work diverts money away from medical research spending that could lengthen lives. Military spending on a pointless war similarly diverts money away from research spending that could lengthen heathy productive lives.
More generally, anyone who recognizes that aging is a curable condition should reevaluate the priorities they assign to various government spending programs. Is the government really spending on what will do the most to protect and extend your life as a free and independent person? Think about it.
Former Intel CEO Andy Grove has Parkinson's Disease and he believes the rate of advance in biomedical research is far too slow and one of the reasons is the conformity enforced by peer grant reviews.
What stands in the way of more and faster success in getting cures to patients?
The peer review system in grant making and in academic advancement has the major disadvantage of creating conformity of thoughts and values. It's a modern equivalent of a Middle Ages guild, where you have to sing a particular way to get grants, promotions and tenure. The pressure to conform [to prevailing ideas of what causes diseases and how best to find treatments for them] means you lose the people who want to get up and go in a different direction. There is no place for the wild ducks. The result is more sameness and less innovation. What we need is a cultural revolution in the research community, academic and non-academic. We need to give wild ducks the opportunity to emerge and quack their way to success. But cultural change can be driven only by action at the top.
I would like to know what Grove would propose as an alternative to grant peer reviews. Scientific research is sufficiently distant from product development that markets (at least not markets for cures) can't provide the needed guidance or method of distributing rewards.
I don't have a good idea on this one. How would you distribute research money in way that would accelerate the rate of progress?
Epidemiologist John Ioannidis says most claimed research findings are wrong due to mistakes made by researchers in design and in analysis of results.
Dr. Ioannidis is an epidemiologist who studies research methods at the University of Ioannina School of Medicine in Greece and Tufts University in Medford, Mass. In a series of influential analytical reports, he has documented how, in thousands of peer-reviewed research papers published every year, there may be so much less than meets the eye.
These flawed findings, for the most part, stem not from fraud or formal misconduct, but from more mundane misbehavior: miscalculation, poor study design or self-serving data analysis. "There is an increasing concern that in modern research, false findings may be the majority or even the vast majority of published research claims," Dr. Ioannidis said. "A new claim about a research finding is more likely to be false than true."
The hotter the field of research the more likely its published findings should be viewed skeptically, he determined.
Should government agencies that hand out research grants hand out parallel grants to independent groups to do parallel analyzes of data produced by funded researchers to find errors?
I suspect peer reviewers lack the time, data, and incentives needed to catch errors in research papers. Given the relative cheapness of data storage and data transmission technologies at least for some types of research independent parties should be given a crack at analyzing the same data to see if the results drawn by original researchers are warranted.
Another thought: Could some types of studies have agreed standard data formats with standard analyzes written ahead of time so that different studies could be compared automatically and so that bias would not enter as much into the analysis phase?
Ioannidis published a paper in Plos Medicine in August 2005 entitled Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.
There is increasing concern that most current published research findings are false. The probability that a research claim is true may depend on study power and bias, the number of other studies on the same question, and, importantly, the ratio of true to no relationships among the relationships probed in each scientific field. In this framework, a research finding is less likely to be true when the studies conducted in a field are smaller; when effect sizes are smaller; when there is a greater number and lesser preselection of tested relationships; where there is greater flexibility in designs, definitions, outcomes, and analytical modes; when there is greater financial and other interest and prejudice; and when more teams are involved in a scientific field in chase of statistical significance. Simulations show that for most study designs and settings, it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true. Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias. In this essay, I discuss the implications of these problems for the conduct and interpretation of research.
Step up a level and use the kind of thinking a business executive steeped in the wisdom of W. Edwards Deming would bring to a manufacturing quality problem: Huge amounts of labor goes into conducting scientific studies and therefore a high error rate represents a huge amount of waste of labor and supplies. Science needs more automation and other process improvements to raise quality control and reduce waste.
Writing in The Scientist Frederick Sachs argues that the large increase in funding for the US National Institutes of Health did not produce a commensurate increase in scientific productivity as measured by papers published.
Since the NIH budget doubled from $15 billion to $26.4 billion from 1999 to 2003 (Figure 1), I reasoned that there should have been a corresponding jump in productivity. The test was the simplest measure of productivity: the number of publications.
Here's what I found: The number of biomedical publications from US labs did in fact increase from 1999-2004. However, so did the number of publications from labs outside the US where the research budget did not double. Figure 2 shows a parametric plot of the number of scientific papers indexed in the ISI Web of Science database by the keyword "biology" that were published each year from US labs and non-US labs. There is no upward jump that you would expect to see with a sudden increase in productivity.
So are the brains in science tapped out already? Why didn't the rate of papers published increase?
I would have expected an increase in the rate of research papers getting published as a result of more powerful scientific instrumentation. But maybe the brains that used to try to figure out how to tease out smaller answers from lousier tools now publish the same number of papers but with bigger findings per paper on average? Certainly that happens with a lot of genetics papers which describe findings about hundreds and thousands of genes at a time. 10 or 20 years ago a single research paper couldn't report about many genes at once because the tools for sequencing and measuring genes were too primitive.
Any speculations on what is going on with the result Sachs reports?
From 1994 to 2003, total funding for biomedical research in the U.S. doubled to $94.3 billion, with industry providing 57 percent of the funding and the National Institutes of Health providing 28 percent, according to a study in the September 21 issue of JAMA, a theme issue on medical research.
The amount from private sources is much larger than I expected.
Lead author Hamilton Moses III, M.D., of the Alerion Institute, North Garden, Va., presented the findings of the study today at a JAMA media briefing on medical research.
Few comprehensive analyses of the sources of financial support of biomedical research and uses of these funds have been available, according to background information in the article. This results in inadequate information on which to base investment decisions and can create a barrier to judging the value of research to society. Previous articles have examined specific sectors, but few have done so comprehensively.
Dr. Moses and colleagues conducted a study to determine the level and trend from 1994 to 2004 of basic, translational (the application of knowledge of basic science research to clinical care), and clinical U.S. biomedical research support from the major sponsors of this research: (1) federal government, (2) state and local governments, (3) private not-for-profit entities including foundations, and (4) industry. The researchers compiled publicly available data for federal, state, and local governments; foundations; charities; universities; and industry. Proprietary (by subscription but openly available) databases were used to supplement public sources.
It is amazing that after such a huge increase across the board that the relative size of private and public contributions should have emerged unchanged.
The researchers found that biomedical research funding increased from $37.1 billion in 1994 to $94.3 billion in 2003 and doubled when adjusted for inflation. Principal research sponsors in 2003 were industry (57 percent) and the National Institutes of Health (28 percent). Relative proportions from all public and private sources did not change. Industry sponsorship of clinical trials increased from $4.0 to $14.2 billion (in real terms) while federal proportions devoted to basic and applied research were unchanged.
I am not surprised that diagnostics and therapeutic devices Ramp;D yielded the best returns. Drug development returns have been declining. Diagnostic devices are taking off in in part because of a shift toward miniaturized devices. Diagnostics are going to follow in the path of computer chips with smaller devices becoming orders of magnitude more powerful and at the same time orders of magnitude cheaper.
The United States spent an estimated 5.6 percent of its total health expenditures on biomedical research, more than any other country, but less than 0.1 percent for health services research. From an economic perspective, biotechnology and medical device companies were most productive, as measured by new diagnostic and therapeutic devices per dollar of research and development cost. Productivity declined for new pharmaceuticals.
I recently saw a panel discussion at UC Santa Barbara with a venture capitalist and a couple of patent lawyers. The VC commented that just within the last year diagnostics have become a very hot area for VC funding. Makes sense. Diagnostics are going to take off because the demand is huge and biotech devices are becoming like computer devices: very small scale and automated.I was disappointed that it took them this long to figure out that diagnostics are a hot area. But better late than never.
Because next generation diagnostic technologies are going to be increasingly based on microfluidics, nanosensors, and other small scale devices I expect the development of diagnostics to do more to accelerate the pace of biotechnology than the development of drugs. Even though drug development gets a lot more money most of that money flows to clinicians to conduct trials, people who do regulatory filings, and other work that does not develop new enabling technologies. The increased interest of VCs in diagnostics therefore is very good news.
The huge increase in medical devices funding pushes a lot more money toward enabling technologies that will accelerate the rate of biotechnological advance.
The NIH is by far the largest federal funder of biomedical research. Adjusted for inflation, NIH obligations nearly doubled (in 2003 dollars) from $13.4 billion in 1994 to $26.4 billion in 2003. Private support for biomedical research, adjusted for inflation, increased 36 percent from $1.8 billion in 1994 to $2.5 billion in 2003 (in 2003 dollars). Private support for biomedical research comes primarily from foundations, voluntary health organizations, and the free-standing research institutes.
Industry funding from pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical device firms increased 102 percent from $26.8 billion in 1994 to an inflation-adjusted $54.1 billion in 2003 (in 2003 dollars). The growth rate (inflation adjusted) for the medical device sector (264 percent) exceeded that for either the pharmaceutical (89 percent) or biotechnology (98 percent) sectors. The proportion of biomedical research support coming from industry sources remained relatively constant and was 56 percent for 1994 and 58 percent for 2003.
So it turns out there was a shift toward non-governmental funding sources. Given that the Bush Administration is not increasing the budget of the NIH as fast as inflation I'm expecting the private portion to continue to grow relative to the public portion.
Government funding ought to shift away from specific diseases and shift toward the development of basic capabilities such as better instrumentation, microfluidics, nanosensors, and other work on technologies that improve the ability to automatically measure and manipulate biomolecules and biological systems.
The federal government and foundations spent $1.4 billion on health policy and health services research in 2002. Federal funding for health services research came primarily from the NIH ($787 million in fiscal year 2002) and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality ($299 million in fiscal year 2002). The sum of federal and foundation spending for health services research in 2002 was an estimated 1.5 percent of biomedical research funding.
"The doubling over a decade of total spending by U.S. public and private research sponsors in real, inflation-adjusted, terms should be reassuring to those who fear that financial sponsorship for research is not paralleling scientific opportunity. It is also reassuring that spending on health and biomedical science research by companies and government is not following reductions in research and development in other industries or reduced support for other areas of science. By comparison, the low proportion of spending on health services research is especially notable, since it is the main tool available to evaluate the clinical benefit of technology," the authors write.
The increased money for drug research has not helped.
"Barriers to the discovery of new drugs have received much attention over the past decade. Despite the doubling of biomedical research funding and the shift toward clinical research by pharmaceutical companies, the number of new molecular entities approved by the FDA has fallen. For example, from 1994 to 1997, the number of new molecular entities approved averaged 35.5 per year. From 2001 to 2004, the number of new molecular entities averaged 23.3 per year. As a consequence, pharmaceutical productivity decreased over the last 10 years, and it is lagging that of the biotechnology and device sectors," the researchers write.
"We believe a major factor in decreasing productivity stems from pharmaceutical companies' frequent determination that compounds approvable from a regulatory standpoint are not worth bringing to the market because the intensity of competition is so high that it is not worth challenging existing drugs that are safe and effective. This highlights the need to invest in clinical areas with few effective treatments and for which novel mechanisms or entirely new classes of drugs are possible. The willingness of biotechnology companies to do this may, in part, account for their greater relative productivity."
My own take on drug research is that it is becoming yesterday's approach to medical treatments. Most remaining health problems can not be solved with drugs. We need cell therapies and gene therapies much more than new chemical molecule drugs. Most diseases of old age and the very process of aging will be cured by gene and cell therapies and not by drugs. Though new useful drugs will still be found.
"For all sponsors, the challenge is patience. Biomedical research is an inherently high risk and lengthy process. It would be helpful to remind those making financial decisions that the promise of earlier advances in the basic understanding of physiology in the 1920s and 1930s, or of biochemistry and microbiology in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, took decades to unfold."
I do not buy this argument about pressing challenges.
"Enhancing research productivity and evaluation of benefit are pressing challenges, requiring (1) more effective translation of basic scientific knowledge to clinical application; (2) critical appraisal of rapidly moving scientific areas to guide investment where clinical need is greatest, not only where commercial opportunity is currently perceived; and (3) more specific information about sources and uses of research funds than is generally available to allow informed investment decisions. Responsibility falls on industry, government, and foundations to bring these changes about with a longer-term view of research value," the authors conclude.
The big pressing challenges are nuch more ambitious and require boldness that can't be captured in conventional economic analyses:
We need all the enabling technologies for implementing Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS).
Fewer Americans are earning doctoral degrees in science and engineering, 25,509 in 2001 (the last year for which comparative figures are available), versus 27,243 in 1996. And American governmental spending on R&D in the physical sciences, math and engineering has slipped from 0.25 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 1970 to 0.16 percent in 2003, according to the Alliance for Science & Technology Research in America (ASTRA). Meanwhile, China is steaming in the opposite direction. China nearly doubled its output of science and engineering Ph.D.s between 1996 and 2001, to 8,153. And in the six years between 1997 and 2002, national and local governmental spending on research in China doubled, to approximately $9.9 billion. On top of that, multinational corporations have been racing to set up research centers in the country and China's own industrial titans are now plunging into R&D, realizing they have to have their own technology to compete in global markets.
Combined private and public spending on R&D in China as a percentage of GDP has grown from 0.6 percent in 1996 to 1.29 percent in 2002. This is still far below the roughly 2.7 percent of GDP spent in the U.S. But it still positions China as the world's third-largest investor in R&D, after the U.S. and Japan, when measured in purchasing-power parity dollars, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation.
Chinese universities are producing as many scientists and engineers as American universities.
A large part of China's growing success rests on a burgeoning and well-trained scientific workforce. The country produced 337,000 science and engineering graduates with bachelor's degrees in 2001, a figure that approaches the 398,000 produced in the U.S. Given that reliable statistics are several years old, it's possible that China is already producing more science and engineering bachelor's graduates than the U.S.
China's population is about four and a half times larger than the United States. The Chinese score above the US average on IQ tests. At the same time demographic trends in the United States show that the US is not going to be able to compete by building a smarter population. If the United States shifted its immigration policy totally toward brain draining the rest of the world and if it ended all immigration below some IQ threshold (say 125 or 130 perhaps) then the US might be able to retain its lead in brain work. But US policy makers are living in a fantasy land where demographics do not matter and US educational problems can be fixed with more money. It is a nice fantasy. But unfortunately reality bears little relation to that fantasy. Until policy makers and intellectuals admit that genetic differences cause most large IQ differences immigration policy will work against national science and technology strategy.
The big wild card down the line in two or three decades time is offspring genetic engineering. Will China or the United States more rapidly embrace genetic engineering for IQ enhancement? The Chinese, being more pragmatic and less religious, might be expected to embrace IQ enhancement more quickly. However, a high IQ population will pose a serious threat to the stability of China's non-democratic government. The leaders might decide that an IQ-boosted population will become impossible to rule autocratically and hence the leaders might block offspring genetic engineering. Or then again, they might embrace the technology and systematically require offspring genetic engineering for cognitive enhancement. Any guesses? I don't know the answer on this one.
Andrew G. Keeler, who until June 2001 was on the president's Council of Economic Advisers and has since returned to teaching at the University of Georgia, said the Clinton administration had also played with economic calculations of the costs of curbing carbon dioxide emissions, in its case to show that limiting emissions would not be expensive.
But it made available all of the assumptions that went into its analysis, he said; by contrast, the Bush administration drew contorted conclusions but never revealed the details.
"The Clinton administration got these lowest possible costs by taking every assumption that would bias them down," he said. "But they were very clear about what the assumptions were. Anybody who wanted to could wade through them."
This illustrates why I have a hard time feeling enthusiastic about major political figures.The Clinton Administration, personifying the very outgoing and brazen nature of its leader, was willing to lie in detail in public (yes, arbitrarily choosing every unprovable assumption to tip an argument in your favor is brazen lying). By contrast, the Bush Administration prefers to make its lies to the public in the form of simpler summary conclusions which seem aimed at shutting off discussion by providing little to discuss. In the first instance the advantage for critics of the Clintonites was of course that one could challenge each of the individual assumptions that went into building the big lie product. But it is as if the Clinton Adminstration operated under a "dishonesty in labelling" law (as distinct from a "truth in labelling" law) where they revealed all their deceptive ingredients. There is something more brazen about the Clinton Administration choice because a detailed lie is a larger scaled effort that requires more work to produce. More people have to agree to lie when the lie is going to be a detailed economic or ecological model.
Detailed lies remind me of how Spock would tell Captain Kirk some impossibly precise number (Spock: It is difficult to be precise, Captain. I should say approximately 7824.7 to one.) to give the illusion of having greater knowledge about a matter than it was possible to have. Perhaps in Star Trek this was acceptable since it was fiction. But the fact that the deception created an illusion in the minds of many audience members demonstrates that the technique works. The offering of elaborate details and great mathematical precision in results can be (and too often is) used as a technique for deception.
By contrast, the Bush Administration just asserts that its announcements of the truth are miraculously what makes their preferred choices the best choices. Is this worse? The downside is that it provides no basis from which to start arguing their conclusions. It tends to discourage public scrutiny of government decisions and it amounts to a simple assertion of "trust me". It is an approach that probably has the effect of reducing the amount of time the public spends thinking about public policy issues. Or perhaps it just causes a shifting to other policy topics as the public spends less time thinking about public policy issues the government doesn't want to have attract so much attention.
But which approach allows for a greater level of deception? Which is more effective? Is the human mind more easily fooled by simple lies or by complex lies? Perhaps it depends on the mind. Perhaps the deceptions of the Bush Administration are, at least on average, being pitched to a different target demographic group or audience than the Clinton Administration's deceptions were aimed at.
Of course the government has no monopoly on public policy deception. Various factions fool themselves and others into believing they are the virtuous ones presenting the real truth of the matter on some complex issue of policy. The actual act of debating some policy issue - even with the most honest of intentions - inevitably ends up being deceptive in some manner. One has to select what one thinks to be relevant facts (and hopefully correct facts) to present. That act of selection can cause one to deceive both oneself and others.
On the bright side technological trends strike me as favoring more accurate public policy discussions on issues involving science. We can so much more easily find information because of the ever improving world wide web and search engines. Anyone who Googles and reads the better web logs regularly can become far better informed on some issue than was possible even a few years ago. One can read multiple news stories from different sources on the same subject. One can go back to more original sources from which news stories are written. One can even contact scientists and other figures and ask for clarifications whereas previously only journalists could do that.
My sense of how things are going is that the quality of available information is improving and it is becoming easier to get better informed and less partisan analysis on any topic. Though there is still the challenge of how to find the best people on each topic.
William Happer, a professor of physics at Princeton University and George W. Bush supporter, says a lot of scientists are too stuck on their own intellectual superiority. (the magazine The Scientist requires free registration that is well worth the time to sign up for it)
Happer, a member of the Homeland Security Science and Technology Advisory Panel, suggested that the charges from the UCS and Nobel Laureates are largely overblown and out of context. He said that some scientists, who've garnered a sort of "deity complex" based on their scientific achievements, take their role to be akin to Plato's "philosopher kings," wise advisors who would tell citizens how to live. "They're extremely upset when the Bush administration doesn't call in the philosopher kings to be told what to do," he said.
When I hear some of the scientists who are angry at Bush Administration restrictions on embryonic stem cell research part of my reaction is that the scientists are seemingly opposed to the idea that anyone besides scientists should be able to decide what is ethical in areas where the scientists are working. This is something ultimately arrogant and condescending about their rhetoric. They can't see how anyone can legitimately disagree with them. Yet we face serious ethical issues with the ability to manipulate cells that have the potential to develop into full humans. It strikes me as immature to expect the public to all just jump and shift to the position held by most stem cell researchers just because the stem cell researchers are experts. Should we have a society which is ruled by experts?
Leave aside what you personally feel about ethical questions related to embryonic stem cell research. Look at the case of murder. Almost everyone agrees that murder is a bad thing and it should be outlawed. By contrast, there are sharp divisions in America and in many European countries over abortion. Why? It is hard to draw the line on what is a human now that we can intervene in areas we never had the ability to intervene in before. What principles should we use to guide us in making those decisions? Most scientists arguing for allowing the use of embryonic stem cells do not even try to provide an answer to that question. They just rag on Bush and those supposedly horrible fundamentalist Christians.
Religious folks do attempt to provide an answer for why they are opposed to both abortion and embryonic stem cell therapies: They think these procedures and manipulations kill spirits. Now, do we have spirits? Heck if I know. Hope so. Doubt it too. Is there a God who has set absolute rules for right and wrong? The scientists have no better idea to the answer for that question than do priests and pastors. Science is throwing up all sorts of cases where we have to decide on right and wrong where we never had to before because we couldn't create the conditions that produced the ethical problem in the first place.
It is a strain on the public to be faced with so many ethical issues on matters of such gravity. Scientists need to recognize this and to show some patience. That some people (whether for religious or non-religious reasons) tend to take a more expansive view of what is a human than some scientists desire is not a bad thing even if those people are wrong. Would you rather live in a society where the populace tends to draw too small a circle around what is human? Or would you rather live in a society where people err in the direction of greater protection? It is exceedingly unlikely you are going to live in a society where people make their judgements about rights with perfect precision and infinite wisdom. We are only humans after all.
It seems to me that a government has to be legitimate in the minds of its people and that legitimacy has to rest on a widely held set of beliefs on what is right and what is wrong. That need to come up with a consensus on moral questions can not always be avoided by oft-made claim that we can sidestep the need for consensus by letting each person decide whether, say, to make use of the ability to have an abortion or to use embryonic stem cells for therapy. The reason is that the debate is over the question of what is a rights-possessing entity. The answer to that question is by no means obvious. We hold now that babies are from the moment of birth rights-possessing entities. Killing a baby is murder. But back in the Roman Empire that was not the case. Down through time there have been many changes on where to draw the lines on what is a human and on what rights humans possess under different circumstances. So there is no obvious self-evident truth on what is murder or what is a human.
Scientific advances are going to create new situations to debate on where to draw the line and also provide information that will affect how we define where to draw the line. But science by itself can not provide ethical answers. Arrogant condescending assertions of what is right and wrong by academic biomedical researchers are no more helpful than similar assertions by their opponents. One can be a reasonable and well-informed person and disagree with either side. One can even be reasonable and well-informed and be deeply ambivalent about many of the questions that are arising as a result of biomedical advances.
What is a human? The stakes are incredibly high for how we answer that question. The stakes matter for not just abortion and embryonic stem cell research but also for genetic engineering of children, genetic engineering to increase the intelligence of other species, the development of artificial intelligence and human-computer interfaces, and with the ability to keep alive brain-dead or extremely cognitively decayed humans. Most of the ramifications of what happens if we make various choices are hard to guess at. But at least some of those choices would be disastrous in my view. For instance, imagine if we allowed any entity that can pass a Turing test full rights. This would likely be an appealing criterion for some scientists even though most people don't even know what a Turing test is. But then genetically engineered psychopaths would be free to prey on people until they were caught committing a crime.
So far secular scientists have not advanced a compelling non-religious basis for deciding what is a human. Carl Sagan suggested drawing the line (if memory serves) at the point at which the cerebral cortext begins development. His argument was that the frontal lobes of the brain are what makes human minds unique. But most scientists do not try to engage the question at that level. They just assert that of course any reasonable person could not possibly believe that a single cell deserves legal protection.
What I find more worrying about this state of the debate is not the arrogance of scientists. The bigger problem in the longer run comes from the intellectual demands that will be placed on anyone who is trying to judge whether some product of science really is something we want to recognize as sufficiently human-life to deserve protection as a human. The level of cognitive ability and of education even needed to understand the reasoning of arguments for some moral positions about what is a human and what is a rights-possessing entity will be so great that those arguments will be inaccessible to a substantial fraction of the population. How can we have a moral consensus on the legitimacy of crucial laws regarding what is murder and what is a human life if the population can't even understand the laws and their justifications?
One area of international competition involves patents. Americans still win large numbers of them, but the percentage is falling as foreigners, especially Asians, have become more active and in some fields have seized the innovation lead. The United States' share of its own industrial patents has fallen steadily over the decades and now stands at 52 percent.
A more concrete decline can be seen in published research. Physical Review, a series of top physics journals, recently tracked a reversal in which American papers, in two decades, fell from the most to a minority. Last year the total was just 29 percent, down from 61 percent in 1983.
The article cites a number of measures of relative decline of the US position. In some categories the centers of greatest expertise are clearly in other countries. At the same time the US is attracting fewer foreign graduate students and fewer of them are staying in the US once they graduate.
One possible response to this trend would obviously be to increase spending on basic research. But in the face of a huge budget deficit the Bush Administration is probably going to take the opposite step and increase the rate of US decline from its leadership position in science. See my previous post Bush Administration To Cut Many Categories Of Research Spending for the depressing story.
Another possible response would be to pursue an immigration policy which keeps out less intelligent people and makes it much easier for the smartest people to enter and stay in the United States. Of course, the idea of using IQ as a criterion for immigration admissions is incredibly politically incorrect in the United States at this point in time. But before the US falls even further in world ranks in science and technology and while we can still afford to pay to attract top talent we really ought to shift our immigration policy toward one where only the best and the brightest can get in. My posts on this subject are found in my ParaPundit category archive Immigration Brain Drain. As for the question of whether, if we only had the will, could we keep out the less bright the short answer is "Yes" and this could be achieved at an affordable cost if only the political will existed to enforce immigration laws. For a longer answer see my category archive Immigration Law Enforcement.
In some quarters there is a religious belief in the United States as inevitable world leader. I do not subscribe to this view. Powers rise and fall and the US is no exception. Lots of others centers of scientific and technical prowess are obviously rising. While that trend promises to be beneficial because of the resulting knowledge that will raise living standards and increase youthful life expectancy the world over it is clearly a signal that the days are numbered for US as sole "hyperpower". The current leadership in Washington foolishly concentrates too much on using existing power to pursue their short term goals (including doing any number of things to get themselves reelected that are financially harmful in the longer run) while warning lights are flashing that the US's future position will be far less mighty
To some extent the US is a victim of its own history of successes. When a country can succeed in spite of doing foolish things too often it happens that those foolish actions are pointed to as the reasons for success. The US has been lucky in many ways for centuries and therefore at least some Americans have had a tendency to embrace false myths to explain its successes (e.g. that all immigration is good or that God has specially blessed the place).
I see luck as a big factor in America's success. The US was lucky not to be conquered by Hitler or ruled by communists. It was lucky to be separated by oceans from the greatest military threats of the last few centuries. It was lucky to have lots of natural resources such as iron ore, coal, and oil and farmlands ideal for growing crops. It was also lucky to inherit some "cultural software" that Samuel P. Huntington has labelled as dissenting Anglo-Protestantism (which most of America's intellectuals now foolishly dismiss). These and other factors have given the US a pretty good run to the top. Some factors such as a fairly low level of government corruption, an effective legal system for protecting physical and intellectual property, and a free society continue to weigh in US favor today. But not all trends are favorable as the NY Times article linked to above shows.
American demographic trends combined with the adoption of more effective policies in many other nations (e.g. the economic liberalization in much of South and East Asia) are not favorable to the continuation of the US position of clear economic, technological, and, scientific, and military leader. Our room for error is getting smaller very quickly. It is not even clear that the wisest and most astute policies can maintain the current US position. The ratio of population between China and the US is so large that if the Chinese achieve even one fourth of the per capita productivity of the US then the US economy will cease to be the largest. Depending on whether you treat the EU as a single political unit (a debatable proposition) the US potentially already isn't number 1. Though at least in terms of an aging population the EU has an even bigger demographic problem than the United States
The US position is in some ways similar to the British position of the late 19th century. The British home islands population was too small to maintain their position of economic leadership and dominance of a world empire. Their leaders could have played their hand more wisely. Daniel Drezner argues that Germany gained on Britain in industry because the more decentralized structure of the German goverment allowed the regions to innovate in educational and science policy (PDF format) in ways that the British failed to do. But even a better played hand couldn't haved fix the Briitsh demographic Achilles Heel of having a smaller population than Germany and the United States. This is the position the US finds itself in today especially vis a vis China.
Drezner's point about the advantage of a decentralized structure of power speeding the rate of innovation in Germany in the late 19th century does not bode well for the US either (and probably bodes even worse for EU countries as Brussels gains more power). The states, burdened with Medicaid and other expensive federal mandates have lost a considerable amount of autonomy as Congressional legislation, court rulings, and regulatory agencies shift power toward the center. National mass media has tended to make all issues into federal issues to be solved by policy initiatives cooked up by national politiicans and inflicted on local schools and other lower level institutions. The growth of federal involvement in educational policy works against the development of local and state level educational policy innovations.
Aside from a smarter immigration policy and more federal funding for science what can be done about America's relative decline? One potential area for policy innovation is in how science is funded. Science is a classic public good. But it is a good for which it is hard to decide what to fund. One can't predict which research projects will pay off as easily as, say, one can predict which paths for highways will serve the most drivers. If incentives could be developed to encourage science funding by sources aside from the federal government then the distributed nature of the funding sources would reduce the harmful effects of the centralized setting of priorities. The rate of innovation may well increase as a consequence. Possibly tax law at the federal level could be changed to encourage more private philanthropy for science. A mechanism to provide state governments more incentive to fund science might also accelerate the rate of research and development.
Here's an idea for how to make the drive toward centralized regulation work to increase state-level innovation: when states and regions fail to achieve some federally mandated environmental regulatory goal the US Environmental Protection Agency can fine them. But instead of fining them and allowing the federal government to take the fine money how about allowing the states to spend that money on research into topics aimed at developing processes that do not pollute? How about setting a regulatory goal and then allow states to point to funding of research and development as a good faith attempt to achieve that regulatory goal?
Kei Koizumi, US federal R&D budget analyst for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), claims that most categories of research and development spending will see inflation-adjusted declines in the Bush Administration's long-term budget plan through FY2009.
The president has proposed budget decreases at nine of the 12 federal agencies with the largest R&D portfolios, with only the Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) staying ahead of inflation. Large projected increases in NASA and DHS obscures the steep cuts in all other nondefense agencies. In fact, DHS will see a $100 million increase from FY2004 to FY2005, with small increases projected each following year, culminating in a 25 percent boost and record-breaking funding levels over five years after adjusting for inflation.
Although the space exploration programs at NASA will benefit from large funding increases, all other R&D areas will decline dramatically over the next five years, including Earth Science (down 15.9 percent), aeronautics (down 16.2 percent), and Biological and Physical Research (down 11.8 percent).
AAAS analysis shows that even a past favorite like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is susceptible to cuts. Over the next five years, NIH's $27 billion portfolio will see a modest rise due to increases in biodefense research. But funding for non-biodefense programs will fall by seven percent.
Many R&D funding programs face steep cuts over the next five years:
- Department of Energy (DOE) programs will see dramatic decreases such as: energy R&D (down 21 percent by FY2009), fossil energy R&D (down 22 percent), and energy conservation (down 26 percent).
- Department of Agriculture (USDA) intramural research will decline by 19 percent and extramural research grants will see a 28 percent cut.
- At the Department of Commerce, the Bush Administration would eliminate the Advanced Technology Program (ATP), as well as cut the budgets of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) by 10.5 percent and 17.3 percent respectively by FY 2009.
"In order to meet deficit reduction targets, even agencies receiving modest increases like NIH and NSF will see their R&D funding fall beginning in FY 2006," Koizumi said.
Why does Bush think the US can not afford to spend more on science? Lots of reasons. Bush has signed into law a prescription drug benefit that is going to cost $534 billion over the next decade (and that estimate is probably low if past Medicare entitlement spending estimates are indicative). This is especially worrisome because as government spending on drugs increases the pressure to implement drug price controls will increase as well. By reducing the profitability of new drug development and price controls would lead to a drop in private sector funding of medical research. Other entitlements for the elderly are set to grow. The Iraq war and occupation are adding hundreds of billions of more costs. Bush is effectively robbing the future to pay for more immediate demands of various interest groups and for his expensive foreign policy pursuits. See the chart at the bottom of the AAAS full report for how the projected changes in R&D fuding break out through fiscal year 2009. See here for other formats for the same AAAS report.
With the President's FY 2005 budget proposal, total federal R&D investment during the first term will be increased 44%, to a record $132 billion in 2005, compared to $91 billion in FY 2001.
President Bush's 2005 budget request commits 13.5% of total discretionary outlays to R&D - the highest level in 37 years. Not since 1968 and the Apollo program have we seen an investment in science of this magnitude.
Of this, the Bush budget commits 5.7% of total discretionary outlays to non-defense R&D. This is the third highest level in the last 25 years.
Funding for Basic Research, the fuel for future technology development, is at an all-time high of $26.8 billion in FY 2005, a 26% increase from FY 2001.
The President has completed the doubling of funding for the national Institutes of Health (NIH). Funding for NIH during the four years of this Administration is increased more than 40% since FY 2001 to $28.6 billion.
Funding for NSF during the four years of this Administration is increased 30% over FY 2001 to $5.7 billion.
The White House leaves out the fact that most of the NIH budget doubling occurred during Clinton's term in office and was done in large part because some Republican and Democratic party US Senators decided it was a wise thing to do. Some of those Senators have since left office and NIH budget growth doesn't appear to be as well supported politically at this point. Sorry I don't have a URL for this brief aside on NIH budget politics but I read an account of how it happened a couple of years ago.
The White House also ignores what it intends to do in specific categories and what it intends to do out beyond FY2005. The growth in NASA spending and Department of Homeland Defense spending is hiding cuts in other areas.
In my view most of the increase in NASA spending is a waste. The only exception is the plan to develop a nuclear powered space probe which will help to enable the development of defenses against asteroids. There are higher science priorities with much bigger financial and quality-of-life payoffs than a mission to the Moon and Mars.
Biological research can lengthen our lives, make us healthier, smarter, and generally more capable. The biological research will eventually produce treatments that will extend youth and middle age. This will increase the length of time that people can work and therefore would allow us to entirely avoid the financial catastrophe of tens of billions of dollars of unfunded liabilties for care for the elderly that is looming as a growing fraction of the population becomes too old to work. The acceleration of anti-aging and rejuvenation research is the best way to solve the demographic problem of aging populations. See Aubrey de Grey's writings on strategies of engineered negligible senescence for a roadmap of the types of research we ought to be pursuing that could save us tens of trillions of dollars in money that will otherwise have to be spent on the aged. The ability to reverse aging will also unleash huge increases in productivity and economic growth that would produce orders of magnitude more wealth than the cost of the research spent to make it possible.
Energy research in another area which can pay itself back many times over. Newer energy technologies will reduce trade deficits, make our air healthier to breathe, and reduce the threat of terrorism by reducing the financial flows to the Middle East. Another benefit will be greatly reduced defense costs. Instead of cutting energy research we ought to launch a major effort at an additional $10 billion dollars per year aimed at obsolescing oil by pursuing research into a number of alternatives. While Bush purports to be big on national defense he misses the obvious point that energy policy is an essential element of national security policy and energy policy is going to become more important for national security in the future.
The Bush Administation's plans for research and development spending are short-sighted. Scientific advances can solve problems in ways that pay back orders of magnitude more than the original research will cost to fund. Budget deficits and huge unfunded liabilities for those who are going to become elderly in the coming decades combined with the threat of terrorism and the greater globall competition for a limited supply of oil call for mammoth attempts to research and innovate our way to solutions.
It starts off from $4.81 billion this year and doubles by 2007.
The bill provides a 15 percent increase for the foundation in each of the next five years, taking its budget from $4.81 billion in fiscal year 2002, which ended Sept. 30, to $9.8 billion in fiscal year 2007.
The legislation, which has been passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, is now headed to Bush for final review and a signature. The bill authorizes $5.5 billion in funds for 2003, rising to $9.83 billion by 2007, for the NSF, a primary source of research grants for universities and, in turn, many start-up companies.
The increased funding is specifically targeting research on campus and startups involved in nanotechnology and plant genome research.
Funding for the NIH increased 15.5 percent last year. The current measure would increase NSF funds by 15 percent each year over a five-year period that could begin as early as the 2004 fiscal year.
The targetted increase for nanotechnology will yield especially dramatic results. The rate of scientific and technological advance looks set to accelerate.