Scientific Hypocrisy

So I’m listening to Morning Edition today (12/5/06) and they run a story about a group of people trying desperately to get a bill through congress to increase funding specifically for the study of Autism. Sounds like a noble effort, and I can somewhat imagine what it must be like to have children with the disease (we have a friend with children that have symptoms to varying degrees) and to see no progress made in its treatment.

Still, I was moved by a very well-spoken argument which suggested that science is very full of serendipity* and it can actually be helpful to have wide-ranging interests, as often problems can be solved, diseases cured, drugs invented by those initially looking for ‘something else’. The premise is that to get tunnel vision and insist on solely focusing on Autism could really be counter-productive to finding treatment or even a cure. Makes sense to me… I can understand it to be potentially frustrating to those emotionally tied to a search for a cure, but it is well-documented that many scientific breakthroughs have occurred by chance and an observant eye.

But that’s not even the point of this article. What really struck me was moments later when the program shifted to Pfizer and Lipitor and how the recent setback of a drug in development could prove damaging to the industry. Lipitor’s patent is due to expire in the near future and it currently provides (if I understood the program correctly) over 50% of the company’s profits – so they understandably want to find something to fill its shoes before that expiration.

But what are they doing about it? Are they doing R&D all across the board looking for the ‘next big thing’? Nope – they are putting all of their efforts into improving and redefining cholesterol drugs like Lipitor. Funny – I’m pretty sure not moments earlier I heard how focusing on just one thing could be scientifically unprofitable. If drug companies are only worried about profits and the bottom line and have such tunnel vision that they only work on a new variant of the tried-and-true, they deserve the trouble coming their way. Who knows – the next big breakthrough in treating heart conditions might come from whoever is researching Autism…

* for a good read on fortuitous scientific breakthroughs, try Serendipity, by Royston M. Roberts


3 Responses to “Scientific Hypocrisy”

  1. Pharma companies have a different goal than the general scientific community — they exist to create wealth, not necessarily to do good science. I think that’s why you saw the two contradictory viewpoints in one show, they were expressing different perspectives on research strategy.

  2. I completely agree – and perhaps I should have been more honest with myself before posting. Perhaps my issue is more of a disappointment with pharma companies precisely BECAUSE (I feel) they ought to be motivated by helping people and doing ‘good science’.

    I don’t necessarily see making a profit and helping people as being opposing goals – and in fact it occurs to me that those companies even try to portray themselves altruistically (for instance, that their high prices are meant to enable more life-saving research). But maintain a balance. Don’t get so caught up in the money that you lose sight of the whole “we’re here to improve people’s health” aspect of the business.

  3. But maintain a balance. Don’t get so caught up in the money that you lose sight of the whole “we’re here to improve people’s health” aspect of the business.

    Yeah! It would be nice to hear more of that from pharma :-).

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