Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

Gain-of-bureaucracy disease

Jerry Stratton, July 28, 2021

On October 17, 2014, the United States paused all federal funding for gain-of-function research. “Gain-of-function” is a technical term for studies that “aim to increase the ability of infectious agents to cause disease by enhancing its pathogenicity or by increasing its transmissibility.”

Specifically, the funding pause will apply to gain-of-function research projects that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route.

This was extraordinarily important because we’d already seen “several breaches of protocol at US government laboratories”. It was likely—and has now proven true—that laboratories outside the United States were at least as bad or worse.

The funding ban was lifted in 2017, but only for pathogens expected to “be a credible source of a potential future human pandemic”. In other words, funding was still banned for creating new pathogens, the ban was lifted only for those expected to already exist in the wild now or in the future. And funding remained banned if “equally efficacious alternative methods to address the same question in a manner that poses less risk” existed. Further,

The research will be supported through funding mechanisms that allow for appropriate management of risks and ongoing Federal and institutional oversight of all aspects of the research throughout the course of the research…

There were in fact eight criteria that all had to be followed to justify federal funding for gain-of-function research. They were, for the very good reasons we’ve seen over the last two years, very strict, such as the above requirement of oversight on “all aspects” of the research.

However, the flip side of government funds blocking important avenues of research because bureaucracies don’t recognize important new ideas is that the same bureaucracies get stuck on old and busted bad ideas.

Usually these bad ideas are bad because they don’t produce anything useful, and crowd out advances that could save lives. Sometimes, however, they’re bad because what they produce is actively dangerous. Such as gain-of-function being important in-and-of itself instead of as a dangerous tool for limited purposes. As bureaucracies often do, they got stuck on the process and lost the goal.

Bureaucrats and bureaucracies find it difficult to give up when they’re wrong. It doesn’t matter if their wrong ideas merely don’t help or if their wrong ideas actively make things worse. Giving up means ceding power. Bureaucracies that lack accountability will always be tempted to pump more effort and money into bad ideas rather than admit they were wrong.

This nearly happened when the funding bureaucracies started fixating on fetal stem cells. It turns out that besides encouraging the creation of dead embryos this fixation was also holding back the development of far more useful research into more easily available adult stem cells. The federal funding ban meant that we discovered the amazing potential of adult stem cells. It meant both greater benefit and lower cost.1

The bureaucracies very nearly didn’t give up even in the face of a congressional funding ban2 brought on by taxpayers.

The same thing happened with gain-of-function research, only this time the bureaucracies had metastasized enough to ignore the funding ban. Our elected politicians looked at what gain-of-function meant, realized that voters would recognize a really bad idea if it ever blew up, and chose to stop federal funding. And the bureaucracies, fixated on a really bad idea, chose to go around the pause and fund it anyway.

In 2014, the NIH awarded a grant to the U.S.-based EcoHealth Alliance to study the risk of the future emergence of coronaviruses from bats. In 2019, the project was renewed for another five years, but it was canceled in April 2020—three months after the first case of the coronavirus was confirmed in the U.S.

EcoHealth ultimately received $3.7 million over six years from the NIH and distributed nearly $600,000 of that total to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, a collaborator on the project, pre-approved by NIH.

In other words, they sent funds during the federal funding ban, and continued sending funds after the pause ended—ignoring the requirement that they keep a careful watch on all such research. This isn’t actually getting around the ban. It’s still illegal to do this. They’re claiming they didn’t know. Of course, if they didn’t, the reason they didn’t know is that they had no “institutional oversight”. And the reason they had no institutional oversight is that they didn’t want to know. This was almost certainly a deliberate attempt to get around the stringent requirements for funding gain-of-function research by pushing the money outside the United States where no one could see it. Until, of course, it blew up and they hastily cut the funding.

Much as Eisenhower warned in 19613, the government-research complex has become more unaccountable.4 One way to avoid unaccountability is to do what they did: send money overseas to bypass accountability here.

People look at the Wuhan lab and think, what could they have been thinking? How could they have run the lab so poorly? But the purpose of the lab wasn’t to do safe research. The purpose of the lab was to take US government funds. Any research was secondary, and any safeguards were tertiary. Of course the virus escaped. Even the research itself wasn’t the real concern. Being a receptacle for the dreams of unaccountable bureaucrats—in China and in the United States—was the purpose of the lab. This was gain-of-function for bureaucracy, increasing the damage caused by bureaucratic funding.

Government funding of science and the arts is almost always a bad idea, because government bureaucrats have different goals than scientists and artists. Their funding will always reflect the ignorance of the funders. More importantly, they are inherently unscientific. Bureaucracies do not admit they’re wrong. Scientists are always trying to prove they’re wrong. Government funding is diametrically opposed to the advancement of science.

We should not have a gigantic funding bureaucracy whose sole purpose is maintaining their own power, as all bureaucracies do. We would not have COVID-19 if we had not built up the government bureaucracies necessary to house thousands of administrators who think they know more about where tax money should go than taxpayers.

We need to break the government research complex before it gains even more “function”. Government-run research is no longer just killing us by holding back life-saving technologies. Government-run research is now killing us by funding actual killing technologies.

In response to The plexiglass highway: Government bureaucracies can cause anything to fail, even progress.

  1. The whole idea of growing embryos for harvesting stem cells sounds like something from dystopian fiction.

  2. And it shouldn’t be necessary, but with the state of news today, I need to point out that Congress never banned fetal stem cell research. It only blocked government-funding of fetal stem cell research, not the research itself.

  3. The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

    Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite. — President Dwight D. Eisenhower (President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address)

  4. Mind you, government-run research was, even then, killing people with their bad ideas. The CDC’s infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment started in 1932 and didn’t end until 1971.

    Giving government control of research is a bad idea. Giving government control of health research is a spectacularly bad idea.

  1. <- Deadly bureaucracy