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Progress Before Profit

Entry 596, on 2007-08-28 at 16:47:46 (Rating 2, Politics)

Today I listened to another podcast in the "Point of Inquiry" series which interviewed a University professor and researcher who had just published a book describing the 100 greatest advances in medical history. His conclusion was that many of the advances were societal and not technical, for example the ability of farmers and village dwellers to care for the sick when hunter-gatherers might not have been able to.

An observation he made about recent advances in medicine was something I have often thought myself, that is that great advances, almost without exception, come from public funding and not from corporations, even though production of medical products is controlled by big business. He believed the overall influence of the corporatisation of medicine has been negative. I have extended this theme when I have blogged in the past about how I believe that allowing business to control any important aspect of society is a bad idea.

In a related podcast another speaker opined that corporatisation has negatively influenced scientific progress because once effort is focussed towards maximising profit instead of maximising scientific or public good outcomes, then important research is neglected. For example, its easier to make trivial changes to existing drugs to increase the time a patent holds instead of developing genuinely new products. And its more profitable to produce drugs which treat problems of doubtful existence instead of tackling the real problems which might need solutions in less profitable markets.

These opinions are backed up by evidence. The New England Journal of Medicine published a study which showed corporatisation hasn't improved care in the US. So I think its time that a new model was found for developing practical products. Most of the hard work in fundamental research is done by Universities and government funded labs, but private enterprise gets most of the benefits. Taxing big corporations and using the funds for more research is one solution but probably not a realistic one (the corporations have too much control of governments and taxation isn't a popular option even when it makes sense).

Instead we need a new economic model that puts progress before profit. I'll leave it as an exercise for someone else to figure out how it should work!

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