Premise: The age from about 1910 (Henry Ford) to 1969 (moon landing) contained astonishing advances in transportation. The age from about 1969 (ARPAnet) through 1980 (Apple II), 1998 (Google) and 2004 (Facebook) contained astonishing advances in information technology. The age beginning in the late 20th century with DNA mapping and the decoding of the human genome offers a third, likely just beginning, age of astonishing technological advance. All have been American-led; all have exhibited extensive cooperation between the private and public sectors.
Let’s look at a few of today’s biological technology headlines in that light.
1. One of the downsides of the hyperpartisan debates over Obamacare – beyond the increased costs and the intrusion of the federal government into personal health decisions – is the unknown consequence of overturning one sixth of our economy. Some elements, such as the medical device excise tax, have a direct effect of inhibiting investment and invention; others, such as arbitrary service and funding mandates for hospitals, will have a negative impact on research; but, the biggest risk is that cooperation between the private health care sector and government is being traumatized.
2. On October 9, Gilead Sciences announced FDA approval to sell a once-a-day pill that can cure Hepatitis C in 8 to 12 weeks. With 150 to 200 million sufferers globally, a great humanitarian breakthrough – right? Well, not so much. Gilead will charge $1000 per pill in the US, while contracting with generic manufactuers for the undeveloped world to make the wonder drug available at about $10 per pill. Sometime in the next year or two there will be a debate about how much Medicare and Obamacare insurance policies are required to cover, how research costs are compensated, and who decides who lives and dies when pharmaceutical companies charge more than society can afford to pay.
3. The early stages of the Ebola epidemic demonstrate that, despite billions spent on the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control, neither the world, nor the United States is prepared. There is a tendency to put the tragedy in political terms – Democrats running graphic ads blaming Republican budget cuts (although the current Republican budget contained greater funding for the CDC than Obama requested); the politically-correct World Health Organization blaming the spread of disease on global warming. The reality is that the CDC was unprepared – no clear designation of primary care facilities; no protocol for travel by attending health care professionals; no clear plan for curtailing air travel or increasing inspection at designated airports. Most disappointing is the absence of a credible senior leader to prominantly explain the nature of the problem, what is being done, and what the individual should do.
4. On the positive side, the application of biological science to yield improvement in agriculture – highlighted by Monsanto and DuPont – has allowed the world population to grow from 5 billion in 1987 to over 7 billion today, accompanied with rising standards of nutrition, while providing some moderation on pressures to convert forests to farmland. Fortunately, the majority of the world is more interested in feeding itself than are the ideological “parties of science” in the United States and Europe who rail against genetically-modified foods as science is applied to reduce the need for water, pesticides, and fertilizer.
For those bemoaning the decline of America in diplomatic, military, or economic terms, there is hope for continuing technical ascendency based on our primacy in research universities, the attractiveness of America to global talent, and the generally cooperative relation between government and private enterprise. Hopefully Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and [mc_name name=’Sen. John Kerry (D-MA)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’K000148′ ] will keep out of the way.
This week’s video is the President’s totally uninspiring public statement on the Ebola crisis.