Monday, April 10, 2006

Basic research

A new study out today shows that U.S. Research Funds Often Lead to Start-Ups:
university scientists who received federal financing from the National Cancer Institute … generated patents at a rapid pace and started companies in surprisingly high numbers.

The study, the authors say, suggests that the commercial payoff for the government's support for basic research and development in the life sciences is greater than previously thought.
Government funding of research, like most (all?) government actions, solves a collective action problem. Society, and especially industry, benefits when someone invests in research with no immediate goal. But the best immediate payoff for industry comes from very targeted research. That means the companies which invest in the most basic research will do worse than those which don't. The computer industry and the basic work in large scale computer networking was done on government contracts.

The relevance of this point becomes blindingly clear when we get down to the practicality of proposals like this recent suggestion about using stem cells to produce non-human testbeds for clinical research. Of course, it would be banned under rules proposed by both US Senator Brownback and by a Kansas legislator.

The idea would be to create animals with human cell lines developed within it. By testing the responses of those few cell types to drugs, one could accurately determine the effects of drugs without risking patient safety.

The applications for these chimerae would be limitless, and the commercial potential enormous. And there are certainly people who think they raise ethical questions. The answer is not to forbid the work and forego the potential health benefits, but to establish ethical rules and give people the funding to explore the potential of this new technology and of new ideas.