Human Exceptionalism

This Scratches My Naderite Itch

Our hyper commercialization of science and medical research is both a great strength and a great weakness. The profit motive certainly stimulates innovation and risk, but it can also stymie advances that don’t fit easily into the prospective bottom line. And so I worry that universities, now totally in bed with big commercial interests, may lose some of their innovative drive and inquisitive spirit. Corporate welfare in research is also a problem. I am not opposed to the government funding experiments, but I agree with Ralph Nader on this: When such research provides a profitable boon, there should be some kind of payback to the public for the assistance provided. In short, with so many in science hoping to become the next Bill Gates, the direction of research can be distorted when subjected to filtering through a commercial colander.

That is why I find the concept of “venture philanthropy” so refreshing. From the story:

After four years of research with Silicon Valley backing, Scott Johnson’s outfit is preparing for the trial by fire faced by most biotechnology startups. It’s time for the road show.
Young companies routinely go on the road to present their best ideas for new drugs to big pharmaceutical and biotech companies. They hope to land a rich licensing deal. But Johnson’s organization is not a biotech startup. It’s a nonprofit charitable foundation with a uniquely hands-on scientific program. And its upcoming road show will be a key test of Johnson’s theory that a small charity with the right rules can be a formidable force to bring new treatments to the world–and speed up the process of drug development.

The story describes how such nonprofit research enterprises may be a new trend:Charities can help bridge the funding gap that often prevents promising early stage science from being developed into medicines, said Johnson. The Myelin Repair Foundation wants to advance studies to the point where it makes financial sense for drugmakers to pick it up, he said.

Basic research can receive short shrift when commercial benefit is the top priority, and that is where such ventures can provide benefit:

“It was just so inefficient and crazy,” he said. Drug companies are doing less of the basic research that can lead to novel drugs, because it’s expensive and risky. Those who conduct basic university research could tackle big medical problems if they worked in collaboration, Johnson said. But they compete with each other for government grants, so they keep their work under wraps until they can publish in scientific journals, he found. Only then do they hear comments from other experts.

By contrast, members of his collaborative group of university researchers recently brainstormed on a proposed experiment during a conference call. “In four minutes the experiment was completely redesigned,” Johnson said.

One of America’s strong suits is our philanthropic sector. This kind of imaginative approach could produce a lot of good.