Who Directs Progress?
The number one rule is business is to please the people who write the checks. We in the scientific community like to believe that “business” notions like profitability and compromise play a minute role in the direction of research, and that projects are undertaken in an effort to improve mankind. This is a fantasy thanks to one simple fact – the scientific community is not writing the checks.
If we don’t decide what to research, who does?
90% of the time the answer to this question is going to be big business. There are a great many industries that are to be held accountable, but for the sake of this argument I would like to use Big Pharma (Merck, DuPont, Pfizer, etc…). In 2004 Pfizer alone spent $7.7 Billion on research and development, with the total for all US drug and biotech companies coming in at just under $40 billion.
Why is this a bad thing?
1. Direction – Have a solid theory that researching a certain compound can cure cancer in 10 years? Good luck getting funding. Think you can cure acne in 2 years? Heres a million dollars, but make sure they have to take this cure every month to keep it working.
The people who are deciding where to allocate research money are not interested in science, only profits. If you think you can legitimately help man kind, but there is not obvious way to profit from it, then you are shit outta luck (or should I say we all are). There is an excellent discussion on this particular subject that can be found here.
2. Ethics – The scientific community is very proud of its morals. We do our work to help mankind and to further progress our knowledge of various subjects. The same cannot be said to the profit minded business men who are fitting the bills, and they might not find it so reprehensible to fudge a few numbers in a study if it can mean big money for the shareholders.
A study was done by Richard Davidson at the University of Florida where he looked at the results of clinical trials comparing new therapies with old ones, and compared the rates of success of research funded by pharmaceutical companies with the ones that weren’t. What he found is There was a statistically significant association between the source of funding and the outcome of the study (p=0.002).
What can we do to fix this?
The answer is entrepreneurship by scientists. When you, the science minded researcher, believe you have a breakthrough on your hands you need to build a company around it. I know it is much safer and easier to patent your findings and then sell to a company, but in doing so you are making sure that control of your research stays out of your hands. If instead of selling your findings you decide to take over the business aspect and market it yourself, you give yourself a chance to become successful. You then are in a position to fund your own research, and maybe even give grants to others. This is not a short-term solution, it will take time, but it is the only way to get progress back in the hands of people who actually care about progress.
As long as research is funded by businessmen progress will be directed by profit instead of knowledge
Please don’t hesitate to disagree!