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No Brainer Indeed

In this month’s edition of Popular Science in an opinion piece titled “No Brainer” we are treated to:

If the government wants to fund a grand national effort, it should attack problems whose solutions are bad for business. For instance, let’s cure cancer. The biomedical industry treats cancer with drugs, surgery, and other high budget interventions. But it has no financial incentive to find a cure, which would destroy its $82 billion a year business. …

NO financial incentive? How do we suppose a cure will be administered? Will non-biomedical companies make vaccines? But this sentiment is extremely common – my students feed it to me when it comes to ending war (arms companies won’t allow it), ending obesity (soda companies won’t allow it), ending pollution (fossil fuel companies won’t allow it) and so on.

I actually feel sorry for people who consistently think this way – it must be unexciting to be so unoriginal and to have been educated this way. It’s more evidence of our educational rot. So let’s ask a few questions.

(1) Did biomedical companies create cancer? The author is close to intimating it. No. Their $82 billion is in response to the problem.

(2) Isn’t $82 billion pretty serious evidence that there’s plenty of incentive to “solve” the problem? That is basically a mountain of cash on the table to be had by whomever figures out a cure.

(3) Did the end of polio and smallpox bankrupt the biomedical industry? Or what about the innovation in mildly invasive heart procedures that end expensive surgery and recovery drugs? Did the billions of biomedical dollars fight to stop that?

(4) Will biomedical companies be permitted to earn income dealing with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or whatever will afflict lots of us if cancer is licked? Will they then be accused of curing cancer just so they can rake in money treating these and new diseases?

(5) These guys are no different than wacky conspiracy theorists. What would have to be coordinated to pull off, “prevent a cancer cure”? It’s probabilistically zero.

By the way I really like the idea of medical companies trying to make money off of my illness. Would folks prefer it if no one could?

6 Responses to “No Brainer Indeed”

  1. Speedmaster says:

    Do you remember the old stories about how some guy in the 60s or 70s created a 100mpg carburetor and GM/Exxon/Big Oil either bought the patent and destroyed it or made the guy disappear, etc.?

  2. Evan says:

    People forget that there are always non-monetary incentives for feats such as curing cancer. Power and prestige are valuable, and who wouldn’t want to go down in history as a hero? Whoever does so will likely be remembered as a hybrid Salk/Einstein figure. Not too shabby.

    • wintercow20 says:

      Great point Evan. It’s one that can be made about compensation for elected officials. I am pretty sure the President’s salary is much lower than most corporate executives, and most US Congressmen salaries are lower than even some college professors. But it’s pretty awesome to live in the White House and fly helicopters when you have a lunch date, and to have your face in an oval in the back of history books for time immemorium.

  3. RIT_Rich says:

    Of course the additional problem is that “cancer” isn’t one disease, it’s hundreds of disease with hundreds of causes. So you can’t “cure” cancer anymore than you can “cure” the flu.

    Also, don’t insurance companies have an even bigger incentive to fund cures and prevention of such diseases?

  4. ZT says:

    The next time I run into someone using this kind of logic, I’m going to ask them how they can ever trust government agencies not to create more problems to justify their existence and salaries. After all, unlike businesses, the government actually is a centralized monopoly with the potential to coordinate things the private sector can’t.

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