The Value of Research

March 12, 2014 § 3 Comments

I find myself annoyed by complaints about government money being “wasted” on research.  The argument is simple, and simplistic: obscure research is a waste of taxpayer money and should be stopped.  There are countless examples of allegedly obscure and useless research paying off.  But I like this one the most.

I recently read Siddartha Mukerjee’s epic The Emperor of  all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, a rather deserving Pulitzer Prize-winner.  In it, Mukerjee tells a brief story about an obscure biophysicist, Barnett Rosenberg, at Michigan State University, who was conducting research to find out whether electrical currents would cause bacterial cell division in 1965.  Exciting stuff.  Mukerjee describes what happened next:

When Rosenberg turned the electricity on, he found, astonishingly, that the bacterial cells stopped dividing entirely.  Rosenberg initially proposed that the electrical current was an active agent in inhibiting cell division.  But the electricity, he soon determined, was merely a bystander.  The platinum electrode had interacted with the salt in the bacterial solution to generate a new growth-arresting molecule that had diffused throughout the liquid.  That chemical was cisplatin.

Cisplatin, it turns out, was part of the next generation of chemotherapeutic treatments of cancer in the 1970s.  And it led to improved survival rates due to that treatment (as well as insane nausea).

Nevertheless, Rosenberg’s apparently obscure discovery in a lab in East Lansing, Michigan, led to thousands of lives being saved, extended, and cancers put into remission.  Thus the value of research.

It turns out that this is a especially prescient given the recent state of cancer research, at least, in the United States.  According to the Sunday Boston Globe last weekend, industry is coming to provide more and more research money, both in terms of absolute and relative numbers, in the past few years.  At Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, one of the world’s leading sites of cancer-related research, industry funds have risen steadily as a total of funds in the past decade; today, 22.7% of all research moneys come from industry (the remainder from the federal government).  The same is true at the rest of the nation’s leading cancer centres.

The consequences of this are very real.  As government cutbacks lead to reduced investments in research, industry increases its involvement.  This is in and of itself not a bad thing, but pharmaceutical companies have a bottom line and are looking for profit.  And it’s not unheard of for the companies to interfere in the research. For example, industry-sponsored research trials more often lead to positive results for the drug being tested.  Many of the researchers interviewed for the Boston Globe story are ambivalent about industry-funded research, but recognise it can be the only source for funding.

But, industry-funded trials will not lead to the kinds of developments like that of Rosenberg, this model is not equipped for obscure research or, for that matter, long-term research and trials.

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