Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Technical Fix?

I'm obviously not one to take issue with calls to increase, or at least maintain, the NIH budget and federally sponsored R&D in general. Of course I'm one of those greedy scientists who, according to the genius Rick Perry, makes stuff up in order to get funding. The stuff I make up happens to be the truth, as established by rigorous hypothesis testing, otherwise I don't publish it, but still.

Anyhow, here you have two investment bankers -- who obviously must not be greedy or making stuff up in order to make money -- arguing on behalf of NIH-funded research. They think there are two major reasons why it's the greatest thing since oxygen, and a third reason that makes it at least as good as sliced bread:

1) It's good for the economy. It creates new industries and jobs.
2) It's the only way to fix the health care system, because, because, er, well, it can save money by finding ways to do things cheaper, I guess.
3) It will make people live longer and be healthier.

One may be forgiven for suspecting that #1 is #1 for them. They invest in the medical industry and obviously they want new stuff to invest in. Now let's think about it. If #2 is also true, and we end up spending less on health care, then there must be shrinking industries and fewer jobs, ¿verdad? Hmm.

Everybody's complaining that we keep spending more and more on health care and we can't afford it. Why are we spending more and more on health care? It's not so much because people are getting older. That explains a big part of why we spend more and more on Medicare, but health care spending keeps going up for younger people as well. The reason is because of #1: we keep paying for new technologies, which means doing more stuff and doing more expensive stuff. That indeed creates industries and jobs, but that's money we aren't spending on something else. If scientific and technological advances in health care were in fact bringing about #2, that would negate #1.

So what exactly do these guys really think? Presumably, the love #1 but they want to come up with some additional selling points so they trot out #s 2 and 3, without stopping to notice that 1 and 2 are contradictory. Number 3? Could be true, but not if all that money being diverted to #1 comes out of other stuff that keeps people healthy like, I dunno, having a good diet and good housing and safe neighborhoods and clean water and what not.

Now, it could happen that the historical association between technological advance and higher costs reverses at some point. If they invent a cheap shot that cures cancer, Bob's your uncle. But so far they keep inventing $100,000 shots that keep people with cancer alive for 4 months. If they do invent that cheap shot, great news for #s 2 and 3, but very bad news for the pharmaceutical industry, i.e. #1 goes belly up.

These guys need to think it through a little harder.

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