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April 4, 2007

Ethicist Nigel Cameron has called this the “Biotech Century,” which is certainly apt, given all of the excitement over new ways to intervene into biology and medicine, even tantalizing research to change our genetic makeup and to lengthen human life.

But here’s a sober bit of perspective. “Biotech” has become such a holy grail, attracting a lot of speculative investment money, without much possibility of a tangible return. Consider all of the excitement over human embryonic stem cell research, much of it driven by wishful thinking, and not necessarily a lot of good science (other blog articles on stem cell research).

Finally there comes a voice of reason. Joe Cortright is an economist and corporate VP who calls biotechnology an “idea virus.” Cortright questions the mentality of going after investment money based on ideas alone, and rightly points out that biotech won’t necessarily generate a lot of new jobs or create new products.

I’m reminded of the hype for “genetic engineering” in the 1990s. There were many start-up companies, and a wave of enthusiasm for these ideas. How many products resulted from the billions of dollars invested, that are actually helping people or treating disease today? Almost none. Oh, and by the way, hardly any of those companies exist anymore. The investors made a slight profit on hype alone, and got out.

The modern enthusiasm for stem cell research is leading to distortions of scientific accuracy in the public media, with the public blindly approving the use of state monies for some very questionable future gains. It’s a sophisticated form of snake-oil hucksterism, where the real losers will be you and me, along with any rational understanding of human dignity.

(Article on Joe Cortright)

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