Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Science vs. Welfare

Since coming to grad school, I've encountered very little politicking in my courses. And why would I? I expected that out of my philosophy courses as an undergrad. It's hard to figure out how to snipe at a political figure when you're talking about northern blots or the mechanism of ribosomal translation.

However, my bioinformatics professor snuck some of her politics into a lecture the other day, and it really rubbed me the wrong way.

We were discussing the HapMap project. The layman's description is that it seeks to identify and classify genetic diversity across different populations of people across the globe. The project is funded almost exclusively by governmental money (both here and abroad).

We talked partly about the non-scientific aspects of the project (scope, methodoly, ethics, etc.), but at one point she snuck a bit in there about reasons for not doing the project. Why spend all this money on a project like this, she asked, when there are so many people in this country and globally who don't have access to basic healthcare needs?

I'm still flabbergasted by this. Why are you inserting politics into a class about science?

But I'm not just blogging to whine about it, so I'll take the bait: Why should we spend money on this, or any scientific venture, when people out there are in need?

This question has unsettling consequences to me. Imagine just shutting down all progress because it is a better priority to ensure those in need are not. It's a lot of money. Her gripe is about universal healthcare. The HapMap project has had about $120M pumped into it so far, which is a drop in the bucket for the billions needed for universal health care.

Still, I don't think it's right to just shut down scientific inquiry for the sake of welfare. Most advancements in science and technology actually help alleviate these needs: increases in food production, new medical treatments invented, cheaper materials or procedures developed, etc.

And if you really want to get grumpy about it, when do you stop? At what point do you stop diverting money away from science for the sake of welfare? (Ponies for everyone!)

That last question is more of a non-starter, but I think the final answer falls on governmental priorities. I think the government has a larger stake in promoting scientific advancement, which everyone benefits from, than in offering universal health care, which is greatly more expensive with a lower return on investment (Alternatively, insert your preferred social welfare program).

5 comments:

-Murphy said...

You were discussing the reasons for doing the project, yes? Is it unreasonable to think that she may have simply been trying to provoke someone to challenge that opinion?

I'll argue for the hell of it though.

Imagine just shutting down all progress because it is a better priority to ensure those in need are not.

"Ceasing to fund via government" does not necessarily mean "halting research". Is there no way that the free market can handle this?

Hal said...

Is there no way that the free market can handle this?

Sure. But I think we both agree that science has prospered more in the era of government funding than under corporate funding alone.

Incidentally, yours is the argument I make about all welfare. Why not let charities handle that? That doesn't get much traction for some reason.

And it was definitely her argument to make because she felt a need to point out that she's always telling legislators to get moving on universal health care.

Dr. Church said...

science has prospered more in the era of government funding than under corporate funding alone

although these days NASA is doing its darndest to buck this trend hehe

Why not let charities handle that?

So you're ok asking this question when it comes to caring for the vulnerable - just not when it comes to science? I think the proposition doesn't get traction for the same reasons you pointed out that science funding should not be left entirely to the market. After all, there is not nearly as much motivation in the market for charity. Charity is not a natural phenomena - in fact quite the opposite. The driving force in the free market is generally greed (to varying extents). So to me it seems like even more a gamble that the job will be done if we decide - meh - let someone else worry about the poor.

The Expert said...

Incidentally, yours is the argument I make about all welfare. Why not let charities handle that? That doesn't get much traction for some reason.
Biblically speaking, the Bible leaves charity work to be done by both individuals and business owners. It speaks directly against welfare programs (Leviticus 19:10) in that it doesn't say, "gather for the poor" it says "leave some for the poor to work for themselves".

"Ceasing to fund via government" does not necessarily mean "halting research". Is there no way that the free market can handle this?

Since the free market is profit driven, it has a weakness when we're talking about being the sole provider of scientific development. Specifically concerning medical research. The discovery of a cure for a disease is ridiculously expensive, and on top of that research cost, the comapny (rightly) expects to gain a return on their investment, however the company is now in a place to charge exorbitant amounts for something that a person literally needs to be alive. I'm not sure what the solution is here, but that seems awefully close to blackmail. I'm normally a strict proponent of the free market curing all ills, but curing ills may be the area that is hardest for the free market to deal with ethically.

Dr. Church said...

I absolutely can not believe that you think that verse provides a biblical foundation against welfare programs! That's just silly. I have to go pack as I'm traveling to Chicago tomorrow - so instead of writing a whole long thing - just try Deut. 15:10-11 on for size. Or maybe... anything Jesus said.