Sunday, March 17

The purpose of Research - the H5N1 controversy (Quote from the Lancet)


“When asked about the purpose of medical research most people would hopefully reply: to advance knowledge for the good of society; to improve the health of people worldwide; or to find better ways to treat and prevent disease. The reality is different. The research environment, with its different players, is now much less conducive to thinking about such noble goals. Funders have often adopted long-drawn-out bureaucratic processes for their grant giving, and yet rarely ask for a systematic assessment of the need for the proposed research. Full costing is often demanded at first submission with enormous waste of time and resources.
Funders operate within political frameworks that emphasise short-term successes and outcomes. Decisions are dependent on opaque peers' and experts' assessments within each field and take many months. Pharmaceutical companies and industry-sponsored research seek a maximum profitable return on their investment. And academic institutions, which are more and more expected to operate like businesses, think about the economic benefit and the commercial potential of research, or about their performance in a research assessment exercise (measured largely by the surrogate of publications). Research has become an enterprise, an economic engine for nations, a necessary step on the way to economic growth. But surely the purpose of research is more than that.”[1]

And this is true, although some may argue that research must be for some tangible benefit, although at the most basic level, how research results will be applied in a beneficial manner is not often understood until the results are known. The discovery of the electron did not appear to have immediate benefit, yet it has changed the course of history - our understanding of chemistry is built upon understanding electrons and their relationship with the nucleus.

That harm to society of new  methods, techniques or insights developed during research should be weighed against the benefit is an argument used by some, which I believe is superfluous, and one that presupposes that knowledge should be censured. It is not possible to ensure knowledge will not be used for harm; and if we merely censure knowledge because there is a risk of harm, our knowledge will never move forward. Chemistry would have remainded hidden because chemicals have been used to kill millions – yet it has given us the modern society we enjoy today.

[1] http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2813%2960149-X/fulltext?elsca1=ETOC-LANCET&elsca2=email&elsca3=E24A35F

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