An answer to David

12:02 pm Personal, Political

mad.jpgIn reply to my post about a yearned-for speech by Barack Obama, David Harmon made a couple of worthwhile points in the comments. I started to reply to them, and — typical for me — I couldn’t seem to express my thoughts in just a few words. My answer ended up being post-length rather than comment length, so I decided to just make it a separate post.

David said:

(1) The space race was driven ultimately by military considerations, especially after the Russians trumped us with Sputnik. That’s part of why things started to fall apart after we actually got there, and had established superiority in our rocket/missle technology. Yes, I know about all the other technology it produced, but that wasn’t actually part of the political motivation.

(2) At least two of those items aren’t goals, they’re treadmills!

(2a) Birth defects are “whatever happens” when something, anything, goes survivably wrong with fetal development. The March of Dimes got into birth defects exactly because it was a goal that could never actually be reached. Remember, they’d been founded with the specific goal of beating polio — and then Salk and Sabin actually did it!

(2b) Cancer, similarly, has turned out to be a common result from a general category of “failure modes” for aging or damaged cells Even the so-called “cancer genes” just represent “pre-broken” steps in one or more of the breakdown paths.

In both cases, there’s certainly a lot we can find out about it, but “Manhattan Project” type efforts simply don’t apply, because “complete solutions” would imply a total understanding and control of human biology.

And I reply:

Good points, all. But even knowing that birth defects and cancer are nebulous terms for a lot of different actual conditions and causes, there’s a lot to be gained from a stepped-up research focus.

What I really want, as much as anything, is the science (and the renewed focus on science education). I don’t see how we could fail to benefit in huge and unexpected ways from a Manhattan/Apollo project aimed at biology/medicine.

Selling that goal, politically, would ordinarily take longer than it would take to do the research. But a president could appeal directly to diverse demographic groups, to show them the benefits that they themselves could see. ABCD aims directly at senior citizens, at all prospective parents of babies, at diabetes sufferers and their family members, and at everyone (all of us of every age) subject to cancer.

Doesn’t mean that no parent would ever have to deal with birth defects ever again, or that nobody would ever get some kind of cancer. But you have to see the problem first, in clear, personal terms, in order to care about solving it.

In selling the useless and counterproductive Iraq War, the Bush White House showed us fear. And fear, and fear, and more fear. (Think where we’d be if we’d spent the last trillion dollars on biology and medical research, and all the educational efforts leading up to it, rather than on this stupid war.)

ABCD is a way to show people hope. Growing hope. Hope that enjoys an endless chain of research milestones and serendipitous discoveries along the way.

There’s no promise that every single person, every single disease sufferer, will directly benefit. But if those goals are clearly stated, if a sincere effort is made to reduce birth defects and solve progressively more of the riddles of cancers (and also to do away with Alzheimer’s and diabetes), it’s still an honest and worthwhile effort.

Having an open-ended goal is fine with me, if that’s what it is. It just means we’d keep on going with the research. If I naively decide to run a million miles, maybe I have no chance of reaching a million miles … but if I “fail” at a thousand miles, that’s still a huge accomplishment. And if I never give up, there’s no spot on the map you can point to and say “That’s where he failed.” You’d have to say “We have to wait and see; he’s still running. The damned fool must think he can do it.”

And speaking for myself, I actually CAN imagine a future day when zero birth defects is possible, and when every cancer is curable.

The only doorway into that possible future, though, is accelerated, well-funded, socially-supported research.

Every dollar spent on war is SPENT. Every dollar spent on research and education is INVESTED … and pays unknowably large dividends forever after.

As to the business about Sputnik and responding to a perceived threat, that was one of the main points of the speech: That you don’t have to just react when something bad happens. You can PROact to gain benefits. If you focus only on putting out fires, rather than acting in such a way that future fires become less possible, you put yourself at the mercy of blind forces – forces you could have controlled if you’d used foresight and started early enough with corrective action.

Maybe it’s the difference between being a hunter-gatherer and being a farmer. I want us to – deliberately, massively, systematically and with hopeful forethought – FARM medical/biological research for the benefits that would come from it.

4 Responses
  1. iheartmitos :

    Date: June 8, 2008 @ 8:42 pm

    I love the treadmill comment by DH. As a student of science, I find the talk of finding cures really intimidating. Yes, that is the goal and the whole point of my work, but the truth is that the more we learn, the more we realize how complex the problem is. A cure for cancer in 15 years is an excellent goal, but what happens when scientists come up empty handed after all the hype? Does the funding dry up when we have a zillion more questions than we started with and have no promising treatments? There are a lot of basic mechanisms that we do not understand and there’s a long way to go. Personally, I think its worth the effort to figure it out, but it takes a long-term, generation after generation, commitment. Sometimes there are big discoveries that improve life for millions, but most discoveries are tiny pieces of the puzzle. I would love to hear of a plan to provide solid funding century after century for biomedical research. Our capitalist country only seems interested in funding things that will bring treatments (profits) in the next quarter, but we need legislature willing to tackle long-term projects, that might not benefit anyone living now, but that give up to the future generations.

  2. iheartmitos :

    Date: June 8, 2008 @ 8:43 pm

    that last line should be “that give hope to future generations.”

  3. David Harmon :

    Date: June 9, 2008 @ 5:11 pm

    Every dollar spent on war is SPENT. Every dollar spent on research and education is INVESTED … and pays unknowably large dividends forever after.

    Very true, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t be working pretty hard on cancer andr birth defects!

    But as Iheartmitos (mitochondria?) pointed out, “projects” as such eventually end, and if they don’t have something suitably impressive to show for the investment, the backlash can be nasty. For cancer and birth defects, my preferred strategy would be multi-year grants to labs and foundations, mostly going to those which have a record of significant research in the respective fields.

    The hard part is protecting those allocations against future administrations, which may have “other things” to do with the money — but that’s a basic problem with our political structure, which often indulges human short-sightedness.

    It would probably be useful to put a fraction of the money toward publicity/PR efforts, thus generating public awareness and interest for the specific programs. Of course, various charitable organizations are already doing similar PR, but for their own programs. The point here is to protect these particular government-funded programs from changes in the political winds.

  4. iheartmitos :

    Date: June 9, 2008 @ 10:47 pm

    Yes, mitochondria…. the subject of my thesis. :-)

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