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Stem Cells & The NIH

January 8th, 2009 · 3 Comments · Uncategorized

I’ll post more on this at the end of the week, but I’m involved in an all-day intensive HBS course this week.  Tonight we watched a documentary about the stem cell federal funding debate entitled The Accidental Advocate.  Overall, I thought it was a fairly moving portrayal of one man’s struggle with spinal cord injury and his quest for a cure, but I’m not sure it fully evaluated the issues behind this contentious issue.

While I tend to be a bit more sympathetic towards stem cell “legalization”, I can understand the other side’s position.  I don’t think most advocates do.  The pro-argument tends to go: The embryos created for IVF are going to be destroyed anyway, so why not use them for research?  To understand what the opposition believes, you need to replace the word “embryo” with “baby” and restate the argument.  Opponents of embryonic stem cell research seem to believe two things:

  1. In-vitro Fertilization (IVF) results in the creation of 5-10 babies.  Parents choose to keep one and slaughter the other 4-9.  This is wrong.
  2. Allowing research on the babies instead of simply killing them takes advantage of an abhorrent practice.

If you look at it that way, it’s easier to understand the opposition.  I don’t necessarily agree with this position, but I can understand that it’s a non-negotiable issue if you feel this way.

What I found more interesting from the whole stem cell discussion was that it didn’t seem to touch on the root cause of this problem: using the NIH for capital allocation.  Let’s think for a second about how this mechanism works:

  1. Gov’t collects $$$ from researchers.
  2. These taxes fund the NIH.
  3. The NIH decides (politically) how to reallocate the $$$.
  4. Researchers complain about the allocation being political.

It seems like this whole stem-cell debate is a perfect opportunity to question the basic premise: why are we pushing these funds through a political machine instead of simply allowing each individual / company to use them as they see fit?  Politically-motivated decisions are the only reason you would do so.  If you want “the scientists” to decide instead of “the politicians” there’s no reason to push the funds through the NIH.

Do people honestly think that a handful of professional politicians can allocate funds more effectively than tens of thousands of scientists?  Either way you feel about the stem cell issue, it seems like it would lead you to the same conclusion: Get the government out of scientific research funding.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Alex

    I agree with you, as would Milton Friedman, but their argument is that research funding for diseases which are less popular, and in terms provide less profit to those involve, would not get any attention. So the government gets involve using that idea, in order to support all kinds of research. I would have to say that more can be done if the government wasn’t having such a big part in the funding, but that is just my opinion.

  • admin

    Alex — Good point… I can definitely see the benefits of orphan drug incentives (particularly if they were offered as prizes for cures). On the other hand, I feel like the NIH’s scope extends significantly beyond that.

    And it’s not even like they dole out funds based on targeted initiatives (like equal $ / death in the US). I remember seeing some statistic about how the NIH spends $200,000 per AIDS death while only spending $200 per Diabetic death. This definitely seems more political than rational…

  • Alex

    I had not seen those statistics but they sound about right… thanks for sharing that, and yes it does sound more political (profit oriented) than rational (life saving opportunities). Also, more so when i believe that the cure for diseases like Malaria is closer to a reality than for AIDS, but that would only tread those who have little to offer, and the involvement of the government in their favor is little to none. Proving your point that whatever the government was there to do is not doing it right, so why not get out.

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