Sarah is doing a great job blogging the SXSW (whatever that
means) conference she’s attending. I admire that; I’ve never been able to write
coherently about what I’m listening to.
So I’m reporting about 2006 BioAgenda Summit after the fact.
I might subtitle the meeting: The Conference of Conundrums. One of the themes
running throughout the meeting was the religious worldview vs. the scientific
worldview and the different actions they might lead to in life science. An
early panel talked about religion and intelligent design vs. evolution theory.
At the root of those views are some very different assumptions about where life
and, specifically, humans come from. Ideas about what is permissible in human
research and intervention contrast depending on which side you fall off on. So,
during a later discussion of “Regeneration and Stem Cells,” the contrasting
positions were fairly predictable. Ray Kurzweil (an engineer) and Baroness
Susan Greenfield (a neuro-biologist) debated “Enhancing Humans: How Far Should
We Go?” and the positions came close to Ray’s: whatever we can do to enhance
people that’s safe we should do vs. the baroness’: engineered interventions
will just take us closer to the chaotic cacophony we experience in contemporary
I’m not sure we came any closer to closing the gaps in views
on those enormous issues. But the conference had a more down-to-earth theme:
the effectiveness of the life science industry. One topic was the price of
drugs. One view was that the market-driven industry has forces like investor
profits and marketing that add a cost factor that is an unfair burden on
consumers. The position of industry insiders is—not surprisingly—that the
industry is high-risk with lots of uncompensated losses and that prices are
fair given that the level of uncertainty of drug development exceeds any other
enterprise. Besides, they protest, drugs are not the source of the greatest
costs in health care. Drugs are only about 10% of the cost of care.
True, drugs are just a part of soaring health care costs,
and the discussion turned to containing the runaway expenses of making us
healthy. But I have the feeling that no matter who you talk to in the health
care industry, they’ll claim they’re not the problem; it’s the other guy.
Doctors, hospitals, service workers, device makers, insurance companies: it’s
always the others who are to blame. Nobody takes responsibility for the whole
and, therefore, why do much with their own part?
The Summit closed with a positive note, however. Baroness Greenfield
and others are starting a Science Corps that’s similar to the Peace Corps, but
the idea is to mobilize scientists to work on projects related to third world
problems. And the final discussion was about what needs to be done to shore up
a feeble public health system worldwide and to deal with the terrorism that
might exploit emerging life science