Is capitalism good for science?

When I read today that the newest iPhone will have a feature that allows it to be unlocked by fingerprint, the first thing is thought was, “Why?”

Sure, I guess it sounds cool. But that’s about as far as I could take it. It’s just another useless feature in a neat gizmo. This was on the heels of reading another article about the promising results of recent trails with an AIDS vaccine. The juxtaposition of these two articles got me thinking about something that I really hadn’t considered before–are market forces a good thing for science?

It seems that, in America at least, almost everything we develop is determined by the market, and R&D is accordingly following suit. And if there’s one thing we can count on, it’s the American population being woefully shortsighted. Part of me can’t help but hypothesize that part of the reason why there’s no cure for MS or Parkinson’s is because researchers are too busy trying to think of new ways to give old men boners and chemists are preoccupied trying to create new artificial flavors for Doritos.

And that’s the problem with letting the market in this country decide where R&D is focused: the average American would rather see dollars dumped into projects that stop balding, eliminate wrinkles, or put a goofy finger scanner in their smartphone instead of thinking about projects that will have lasting, positive global impacts. Why pour money into research on fusion when we have enough natural gas to power the country for the next century?

There was a time in this country when our space program was second to none and rapidly advancing–and look at the plethora of scientific inventions that came about as part of our exploration of space: satellites (enabling long distance communications), water filters, and infrared thermometers (used in clinics around the world) just to name a few. Computer power today is ridiculously advanced compared to the golden age of the space race–it would take an entire room full of Apollo 11 computers to compete with a modern desktop.

And how do we chose to use that power? Do we create a new spacecraft and usher in a new space age? No, we use it to play candy crush and angry birds. Because that’s where the almighty dollar is to be found. Things like space travel are not for-profit ventures in the eyes of the typical American. Sure, Richard Branson is developing Virgin Galactic. But there’s really no market for that; it’s his own dream, his own pet project, and he just happens to have the capital to realize it. At $250,000 a seat, what market could that possibly serve beyond a tiny niche for the ultra rich?

Yet at the same time there are people who are forward thinkers. Take the asteroid mining venture dreamed up by the creator of Google. Is there a market for any of the resources to be found on an asteroid? No, of course not. It’s VASTLY cheaper to mine those resources here on earth. And yet here comes Planetary Resources, dumping billions of dollars into something that, when looked at purely through an economic lens, makes no sense at all. Again, this a pet project of an individual with tremendous resources, so it’s able to come to fruition.

And I think what bugs me the most about letting the market dictate the direction of science is that it robs us of that intellectual curiosity and wonder that we all used to have. I guess there’s no financial profit to be gained by space exploration on a superficial level (remember all of the innovations that came out of NASA in the 60s and 70s, though?). But what about the profits gained in knowledge, innovation, and creativity?

I know I’m harping on space travel right now, but this extends to other areas of science. I mentioned medicine previously. Because of market forces, pharmaceutical companies are more interested in researching male pattern baldness, menopausal hot flashes, and impotence than they are in developing a cure for something like, I don’t know, cancer. Research like the AIDS vaccine that I mentioned before was done with grants; someone with a dream, with a pet project, went and begged for money so that they could conduct research on something that went against market forces.

Ultimately, it pains me to think about how far we think we’ve progressed because our smartphone has a fingerprint scanner, or because of how advanced the CGI in films is today, or because you can look at your house from Google Earth when the reality of the situation is that we would probably have all sorts of wonderful technology that doesn’t exist because we let science become a business enterprise rather than a human endeavor.

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5 thoughts on “Is capitalism good for science?

  1. I haven’t gotten through your entire article yet (although I very much intend to), but I can’t help but include that one of the reasons I see things like the cure for MS not being thoroughly worked on and found is also that to destroy major diseases is to eliminate some of the drama in the world. People thrive on drama now, namely the media thrives and therefore they assume the population thrives on drama as well. Finding a cure for a disease takes away the drama of those with that disease, and therefore removes future drama topics for the media. It sounds very ‘hidden agenda’ like, and I don’t think it’s very intentional, but the fact is drama drives the world. Eliminate the drama and people think there is no further reason to live. Why, I have no idea. How we got to such a ridiculous mindset, I don’t know. It’s depressing and sickening, but it’s the immediate thing I think of when I see this article. Now! *goes back to read rest of article* ^_^

    1. That is indeed an interesting supposition. I guess drama is inescapable for those of us with pulses, but America in particular does really seem to thrive on it. Just look at all the ridiculously trashy reality TV on the air, E!, TMZ, or any tabloid paper. The media in this country is out of control and at this point more of hindrance to any sort of advancement in our society. Sadly, though, the number of people who are obsessed with who’s divorcing who or fictional people on TV far outnumbers those of us who think about more important things…

  2. This post is built on the supposition that progress isn’t being made and it’s not being made fast enough because people are more interested in other things. I reject the hypothesis altogether.

    Viagra was developed by accident. The researchers were initially studying the drug for a use in hypertension and discovered it could be used for “boners.”

    There’s a great deal of money to be made to eradicate many of the problems you listed above, but it sometimes takes more than money to fix it. Other nations have regulated pharmaceutical companies out of existence based on the naive believe that the pills are too expensive.

    My wife has had 3 brain surgeries. 2 at the Duke Brain Cancer center in North Carolina. They just opened a new multi-million dollar facility. It’s an amazing place and it cost a fortune to build. There’s plenty of money being spent on cancer research at Duke and many other places in the United States, but sometimes money doesn’t guarantee success. I pray they make a breakthrough, but sometimes these things take time.

    1. Kudos to you for rejecting an untestable hypothesis? I’m not exactly sure what your goal here is other than to “prove” that I’m incorrect. This is an opinion piece, not a scientific treatise, so good luck with that.

    2. My reply was a little snippy. I’m currently sick and in a pretty crabby mood…I shouldn’t take it out on readers or a commenter, though. Please accept my apologies; I’m not usually that snarky.

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