Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

The Days of Miracles and Wonder

Here's a good overview by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic of the history of mRNA technology. This heretofore obscure field of biomedical research burst into view with the Covid-19 vaccines, but the apparent suddenness of vaccine development was misleading. As I have noted here before, the technology was decades in development. As the technology became more mature, Pfizer partnered with one of the speculative ventures, BionTech, originally to develop flu vaccines, and then of course pivoted to Covid-19. Unlike Moderna, Pfizer actually didn't take federal funding for that final stage of development. But for most of the decades, the work depended on government and philanthropic funding -- the big publicly traded drug companies won't invest very much in areas of basic biology with only speculative prospect for commercial success.

And that's understandable. Most basic research doesn't end up having any commercial application, at least not for a very long time. I have mentioned this before in reference to physics, although after a century quantum theory does finally have some application in electronic devices and relativity is applicable to the Global Positioning System. In the case of mRNA, however, Covid-19 vaccines are likely only the beginning. There is potential for vaccines against any number of infectious and parasitic diseases; for vaccines that target the specific cells of an individual cancer; and, in a spin-off technology, for injections that can get the body to manufacture its own therapeutic proteins. The latter is problematic in a way that mRNA technology is not, to be sure. The mRNA in the Covid vaccines can't replicate, so it doesn't make any lasting change other than the presence of antibodies to the virus. The long-term safety of sustainable, sRNA technology, is not so obvious. Nevertheless the potential is astonishing.

The main point I want to make from all this is that public investment in science is essential to scientific and ultimately, technological progress. Technological development can be good or bad -- we're seeing a lot of the bad in climate change, particulate pollution, resource depletion -- but we aren't going to solve these problems the Ted Kaczynski way, by going back to the neolithic. The only way out is through -- we need to develop technologies that can support our civilization sustainably. That requires putting tax dollars to work. That's the only hope.

And please note, the whole idea is that basic research has uncertain payoff. Some ideas turn out to be dead ends; some hypotheses are disproved; some scientific findings don't have any immediate technological payoff. I'm talking about high risk/high reward investigations.  It is precisely because any economic payoff is uncertain that business corporations will tend to underinvest in this sort of research that government needs to support it. You can't predict in advance what will pay off, so some of the investment won't. That's the point, not an objection.

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