Mimsy Were the Borogoves

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

Of (Laboratory) Mice and Men

Jerry Stratton, May 8, 2019

Running rats Fantascope: “Animated Phenakistiscope disc (16 sections, time lapse 0.10 s). Running rats, Fantascope by Thomas Mann Baynes. Manufactured in London, Great Britain, in 1833. Manufacturer : Rudolph Ackermann. Diameter : 25.7 cm (10.1 in).”; animation; rats; endless loops

Artist’s rendition of federal research funding.

The more I read about the supposedly breakthrough research being done today, the more it seems that in many research areas, especially medicine and biomedical, competition for subsidies decreases innovation. It isn’t just that research tends to focus on old ideas that appeal to bureaucrats and politicians instead of new ideas that might represent a valuable breakthrough. More and more, the research isn’t focusing on anything other than replicating the buzzwords that appeal to bureaucrats and politicians.

Researchers don’t seem to be looking for mice that have, say, Alzheimer’s, or induce Alzheimer’s in mice, and then for a way to cure or alleviate the mouse’s Alzheimer’s. That’s hard. It requires identifying Alzheimer’s by more than just its symptoms. Instead, so many studies seem to take test animals, induce symptoms that look like the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and then the press reports that we now have insight into how Alzheimer’s works.

It makes everyone look great. The researchers, the reporters, the bureaucrats, and the politicians. What it doesn’t do is bring us closer to a cure. It doesn’t need to. When money comes from funding, the potential patient isn’t a potential customer.

Often, such studies seem like breaking a mouse’s legs to learn how to cure polio, or sometimes even paraplegia.

Sometimes these studies even find that if they stop doing the things that induce the symptoms, the symptoms go away. This, also, is headline-making. Worded correctly, it can sound as if a cure has been found for the thing that looks like the symptoms induced.

But there is a big difference between knowing how to induce symptoms that look like the symptoms of disease X and knowing anything at all about disease X itself. Unfortunately, even the scientific press is getting confused by this more today than they were even five years ago when I started subscribing to Science News.

I put a lot of the blame on federal funding. It is, I suspect, a lot easier to get funding for the very high chance of being able to induce symptoms that look like disease X than it is to get funding for the very low chance of getting real answers about disease X.

When Senators demagogue that we should limit opioid prescriptions to seven days “because no one needs a month’s supply for a wisdom tooth extraction”, ignoring (a) all the evidence about what can go wrong with tooth extractions, and (b) that there are other reasons for needing pain medication than dental visits, such as, say, cancer, remember that these are also the people who set the bar for federal research funding.

After that tweet, the level of funding for any research that might recommend longer terms on pain medication went down. Bureaucrats don’t like to get caught in congressional crossfire.

It’s hard to know what we’re not getting from a policy. How much innovation is held back because subsidies funnel research into old ideas that appeal to bureaucrats instead of new ideas that might produce revolutionary advances? Or new buzzwords instead of real, hard work?

It’s gotten to the point where science reporters aren’t even questioning a story’s most obvious assumptions. Thus, CNBC asking in its headlines, “Is curing patients a sustainable business model?”

“The potential to deliver ‘one shot cures’ is one of the most attractive aspects of gene therapy, genetically-engineered cell therapy and gene editing. However, such treatments offer a very different outlook with regard to recurring revenue versus chronic therapies,” analyst Salveen Richter wrote in the note to clients Tuesday. “While this proposition carries tremendous value for patients and society, it could represent a challenge for genome medicine developers looking for sustained cash flow.”

Nowhere in the article is there any reporting on where the money currently comes from, and why it might dry up on finding a cure. It completely ignores obvious questions that any businessperson would ask: how many people have the disease, and will our success here lead to success elsewhere? Because there are a lot of people in the world, and a lot of related diseases.

Enough so that, of course curing patients is a sustainable business model. If you make your money from patients choosing you. It is not a sustainable business model if you make your money by applying for grants. Patients don’t disappear overnight if you find a cure. They beat a path to your door, giving you plenty of time to find cures for related diseases or better cures for this one. There are a lot of people in the world, and if you find a cure for their diseases it’ll be a long time before everyone wants it. Some people prefer to wait until a cure has proven itself.

Grants, on the other hand, disappear the moment a cure is found. If funding is your customer, the incentives are very different than if patients are your customer.

In the absence of government funding, finding a cure is the moment a cure starts making money. In the presence of government funding, it’s the moment a cure stops making money.

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)

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

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