Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Free Market Fodder

Article today in WSJ about cancer research. The article is about company scientists (or academic scientists who's research is funded with corporate dollars) won't share data with each other.

Sharing data is pretty fundamental to how science works. At the core of science is the Scientific Method (which is basically hypothesize, design experiment to prove/disprove, collect data, publish results showing how data is consistent with new or old theory). No scientist can afford to test a theory completely. But collecting data across the experiments of multiple scientists, theories can be explored and supported or disproved. Having other scientists able to repeat the results of an experiment also validates that the data is meaningful, and not just a fluke or product of some other unknown variable.

When scientists don't share ideas, then multiple experiments aren't run in parallel (which dramatically slows the pace of advancement). When scientists don't share data, then repeatable experiments aren't run, placing the data and the conclusions in doubt.

When scientists don't share data, multiple theories abound, each consistent with a couple experiments, but probably not with the full body of evidence collected across the community. Meaning that it's likely that each theory is wrong in some way.

Which not only means that science and human knowledge doesn't advance as rapidly. In the medical field, it means that drug companies and doctors are providing treatments based upon incomplete and possibly incorrect theories.

Which is bad for you.

But that's our system as it sits today. Companies will not release information until it is patented. Also, scientists competing for grants will not release information until it gets them grant money. Patents take years to award. And once a patent is awarded, other companies are dissuaded from trying to repeat the experiment even if it is then published, since it won't buy them anything. And unless the research is something that affects lots of people (thereby increasing the potential payoff), the research won't even get funded in the first place.

Which is why we still treat many forms of cancer with blunt instruments, blasting our way through healthy cells to get the few bad cells. Which is why we still treat cancer like witch doctors, scratching our heads when a treatment that worked for one patient doesn't work the same on another, then trying some new magic incantation handed down from the archipelagos of medical research.

Which is why some hedge fund managers are freeing up $1 million (a pittance, really) to try some new approaches to funding research.

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At Sunday, September 30, 2007, Blogger Rick Fisk said...

Would you suggest that software companies share their source code with each other to benefit humanity? Isn't the motive for profit and to get their first enough to motivate a company to hurry up and get their life-saving drug or technology to market? Or do we need a government to "level the playing field" so that everyone's "innovations" are equally poor?

At Sunday, September 30, 2007, Blogger A Muser said...

The whole point of the WSJ article is that the motive for profit isn't enough to motivate a company to hurry up and get their life-saving drug or technology to market, if in fact that profit doesn't show a huge return on investment.

For diseases that only have thousands of sufferers worldwide, there is no profit incentive. Therefore, we need other mechanisms to fund development of drugs for these conditions.

That was the point of the article.

My point was to expand on this and ask if there isn't in fact a larger issue around using profit as the sole driver of scientific development.

Where is the profit in a Hubble Space Telescope? Where is the profit in certain vaccines? Where is the profit in building a freeway system?

While I'm excited to see profit potential motivating private space ventures, it was the Ansari X-Prize that kicked off this latest trend. Sometimes you need something other than profit as a driver. Sometimes that comes from government programs. Sometimes it comes from innovative and far thinking philanthropy.

Free markets alone aren't enough.

At Sunday, September 30, 2007, Blogger Rick Fisk said...

OK. So there's no profit in the Hubble space telescope. Maybe there would be if the government hadn't built it.

And there is plenty of profit in vaccines for many reasons. In spite of their lack of efficacy in most cases, drug companies are given immunity from lawsuits while the vaccines are made mandatory by the government. LOTS of profit there.

The government has protected drug companies from suits where the vaccines cause adverse affects. Instead they created a taxpayer-funded trust fund that pays victims.

This idea that the government should subsidize corporations isn't my idea of helpful. The market works. Look at the internet and electronics. Prices go down when there is competition and technology increases.

When the government controls something, ie; healthcare, the price goes up, in spite of the dearth of technology. Look at the price of war technology. Rather than get cheaper, it has skyrocketed over the years.

And on top of this you have a managed monetary system with a federal reserve that depletes the buying power of the middle class and poor by inflating the dollar.

The rich get richer not because there isn't enough government control but because there is too much.

At Monday, October 01, 2007, Blogger A Muser said...

Immunity from lawsuits do not create a profit. Sales at a price much higher than the cost of good sold plus R&D make a profit. The R&D costs are too high for some drugs (those with small patient populations, or those who's patent protection expires and can be cheaply made and distributed).

And I think the particular examples you're using actually work against your arguments.

We don't have socialized medicine in the US, but the cost of healthcare has gone up faster than any other consumer category.

And the Internet? Thanks for making my point. Look into how the internet was initially funded and developed before it became commercially viable.

Finally, if you RTFA, you'll see that the kudos were going to alternate (private) funding mechanisms for research, not government funded research. But it does seem I don't have the same aversion as you do to some of my tax dollars going into research rather than military expansion and abstinency campaigns.

At Monday, October 01, 2007, Blogger Rick Fisk said...

Uhh...The two, immunity from having to pay for the responsibility of a dangerous and non-working product combined with a government that dictates people use that product, is a recipe for gargantuan profits.

We have socialized medicine. We just don't have single payer - which would make health care even more expensive.

I assume you're talking about the old DARPA net tech. Do you remember UUCP? That was what the government came up with. 300 baud connections over landlines where an email could take days to reach your intended recipient. I could probably have mailed you a letter faster.

A great example of central planning and government control over industry can be found with eastern European cars.

Anyway, I didn't come over here to pick a fight. Sorry. I just don't think that there is anything better than self-interest to drive a market. Generally when the government gets involved, it is a disaster. The arguments for government control generally sound like the same arguments with different nouns as the ones made by neoconservatives for going to war.


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