Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Thorny Issue of Stem Cells

Republicans are taking an interesting tact on the stem cell kerfluffle. They are acting like libertarians.

Ken Mehlman just said on CNN that Jim Talent supports stem cell research but he just doesn't think the government should pay for it. ~thus sayeth Digby

Fascinating that local libertarian Jason Pye said pretty much the same thing just yesterday.

And once again, here is where I part ways with my libertarian brothers and sisters.

I understand the ideological position here. Many libertarian stances devolve down to "we don't mind it as long as the government doesn't pay for it". I agree with that about 90% of the time. I begin to part ways when the reality rubber hits the road.

Two undeniable facts prevent the private sector from developing certain types of science. Incentive and money.

The private sector at its simplest has one responsibility. Make money. If there is no money i.e. profit, there is no incentive. Even in an optimum environment, it would take a maverick CEO who would risk an enormous amount of money on research that would take years and might never show a monetary reward. In today's hyperactive performance market where executives are fired in six months for not showing enough growth, it's inconceivable.

Even if you could find a private company with the foresight to take such a risk, they still probably wouldn't have the money. For perspective, look at the Gates Foundation. It is funded by the richest man in the world and it only has a $32 billion dollar endowment. Before you roll your eyes at my use of the word "only" understand that last year's NASA budget was just over $16 billion. Even Bill Gates could only fund a few research project of this magnitude. The only entity that controls money in this scope is the federal government. It's the only bucket that holds enough water to irrigate the field.

I admit to having a soft spot for science, but it's an easy one to understand. Simply look at the history of government funded science. The Manhattan Project. The Apollo program. Projects so massive and risky even if a private firm had the courage, it may have taken decades or lifetimes for them to be successful.

Stem cell research is certainly nascent and there are many questions to be answered. However, the promise is so rich that it has the possibility of ushering in a golden age of medicine. Isn't that worth the public investment? Isn't that worth putting aside ideological absolutes? I believe it is.


Cynthia said...

griftd - I agree with the idea that funding massive stem cell research is an important and worthy goal. However, IF the federal gov't is looking to fund the next Manhattan Project or Apollo launch, I think finding an affordable alternative energy source to foreign oil is a much greater imperative.

I fully support stem cell research, and even have gone so far as to bank the umbilical cord blood from my children, at GREAT expense to myself. I hope to G*d that I never have to use it, but it's there if they need it. Any research that finds new uses for stem cells to cure disease and injury is a direct benefit to my family.

I don't have that choice when it comes to my energy sources. I can't bank gasoline in my garage. I can change my energy provider, but I'm still dependent on gas and oil for my home, car, and work. When and if the Middle East cuts the US off it's export list in favor of shipping to China, this entire country is screwed.

Of course, I think the chances of Bush supporting a massive research project on alternative fuel sources is about as likely as his support of using stem cells from embryos.

griftdrift said...

CLG, I actually agree with you. A Manhattan Project on alternative energy would be worthy. And you point about not being able to bank gas is well taken.

Here's the difference in my mind. There are already private initiatives on energy alternatives. And products like ethanol meet my two criteria of incentive and money. See my earlier posts about ethanol plants in south Georgia. There is money and private business sees it as a growth issue with potential for profit.

Areas of for lack of a better term pure research rarely have that advantage.

But you are right, fuel is probably our most pressing issue and affects so many issues. It would be great to see some sort of public-private effort in this area.