My Journey to Zion

Science for Everyone, the Ivory Tower I Want

Good, Smart Scientists

I am 95% a teacher and about 5% a researcher, but before I started teaching I was a graduate student and post-doc for close to 10 years. Since then I've had chances at least a couple of times a year to listen to researchers in a wide variety of chemistry fields. Here's my experience:

Researchers working for big and small agrobusiness, chemical manufacturers, and pharmaceutical and medical research companies are smart, conscientious researchers. They want to do good work that improves products, is more environmentally responsible than the current products, and is useful to humanity. It's amazing and clever many of the things they are doing. Things like:
* making paint pigments spread more evenly at a molecular level so that it takes less paint to cover a wall,
* making plants that are more drought and pest resistant,
* finding gut microbes that can treat depression,
and other things that add up over a whole society to huge reductions in resource use, huge increases in food production, or huge improvements in human well-being.

The Rich Get Richer

Despite the good intentions, clever ideas, and moral motivations of the scientists I've met and listened to, their science, on the whole, serves to make the rich richer and to mostly help the haves, leaving behind the have nots. What's the disconnect?

The Gut Microbiome

Last year I attended an American Chemical Society webinar on the Gut Microbiome-Brain Alliance. Here's the short version:

Post-, Pro-, and Pre-Biotics

Post-biotics are chemicals produced in your gut that make you healthier and happier in different ways. There's a big nerve that goes straight from your gut to your brain, so the right chemicals in your gut can do a lot more than make your digestion work better. But these chemicals aren't made by your own cells. They have to be made by other organisms.

Post-biotics are made by pro-biotics—healthy bacteria and funguses that can live in your gut. You can change your gut microbes, sometimes, by eating pro-biotics found in fermented foods like yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, and numerous other things. Or you can eat supplements with probiotics in them. You can even completely transplant your gut microbiome by killing your own and eating a pill with poop from a healthy person. It's called a fecal transplant. For the right problems, fecal transplants can be life changing.

Pre-biotics are all the things that promote growth of healthy microbes in your gut. Basically a diet high in fiber and fresh vegetables. There are classes of things that are bad for your gut microbiome, too. I haven't heard as much about these, but they probably include emulsifiers and numerous things found in many processed foods.

Gut Microbiome Research

In the last 20 years, research into the gut-microbiome-brain connection has grown exponentially. If my memory serves, research is now in the billions of dollars in the US. A small but significant amount of the research funding comes from government agencies—mostly the National Institutes of Health. The rest is mostly from pharmaceutical and related industries.

There are three areas the research funding could go that would all have beneficial effects for humanity.
1. We could figure out how to provide healthier, pre- and pro-biotic diets for people and how to enable and encourage people to eat those diets. We could figure out what things we eat hurt our gut microbiome and remove those things from diets and processed foods.
2. We could figure out how to package pro-biotics as medical or dietary supplements, including genetically engineering pro-biotics to more effectively produce the desired post-biotics.
3. We could figure out what the good post-biotics are, and produce and market them as health supplements or drugs for treating different conditions. We could even modify them to find molecules that are even better drugs for treating human health.

The Biggest Possible Benefits

After considering these three areas for research, which do you think would be most cost effective for our society? Which would provide the greatest benefits for the most people?

To me, it seems obvious that enabling and encouraging everybody in society to eat healthier pre- and pro-biotic diets will have the greatest health benefits for the most people, at the lowest cost per person. It might fix many problems before they even become problems. We would have to grow enough fruits and vegetables for everybody to get the needed daily servings (which we apparently don't, currently), and we would have to eat less meat and sugary and processed foods. Those are major challenges, but they are desireable goals for many reasons. These are changes in agriculture, in grocery stores, in food services, and in cultural attitudes and practices that are not easily solved, but would have far reaching benefits.

The other areas involve things like industrial scale growth and processing of pro-biotics and post-biotics, and patentable genetic modification of microbes or development of drugs. The health benefits will mostly go to whoever has insurance that will cover it, or enough money to buy it. If you don't know who struggles to get medical treatment, it's a subject I think you should learn more about. If it helps, my family is right on the edge. Pretty nice insurance from my employer that's too expensive to buy for the whole family on a single income, so our kids qualify for Medicaid. So we juggle extra paperwork, inconvenient appointments, and delayed approvals for things our kids need (because Medicaid means inconvenience, because we wouldn't want it to be easy for the poor to get good healthcare. They would abuse it), and really high deductibles but a little easier and more convenient services for me and Ammie.

Now look again at the funding sources and the possible areas of research. Add that to what you know about the challenges of changing food systems and culture and how hard it is for an investor to make money by investing in society-wide food system changes, and make your prediction about where more than 90% of research into the gut microbiome goes. (From the numbers in the ACS webinar, I thought it was likely more than 95% of the research budget, but 90% is a very conservative minimum.)

Billions of Dollars Spent to Make Money

And the winner is . . .
Research aimed at making money. All those scientists working for pharma to understand the gut microbiome have to justify their work by how it will make money for the company and investors. Even a chunk of the government funded research is designated for studying things that can be translated into advances in the medical industry. It has nothing to do with how smart the scientists are. It has nothing to do with the desires of the scientists to do work that benefits humanity. It is simply that scientists are people, too. We have to eat. We have to buy homes. We have to have money to live in this world. So we do work that pays. And for more than 90% of scientists, the work that pays is not the work with the greatest potential to benefit society the most. It's work with the greatest potential to benefit shareholders the most. It's lucky that benefitting humanity and benefitting shareholders have some overlap.

But the outcome is, a small group of people, with good enough insurance get some benefit from the amazing work of scientists, get some health benefits. And rich investors, with enough connections and (even legal) inside information, get richer by skimming a percentage off the research of scientists and the labor of all the people who produce and distribute the products, continue to get richer without lifting a finger to actually help anything happen. They just do that important and oh so valuable brain work of choosing where to send their digital ones and zeros to keep their capital gains growing. Or they pay someone else to do that brain work.

It's the System, Not the Science

So here it is again. Science is part of late stage Capitalism. You get what you pay for, and then some, if you are rich, and the rest of us fight to pick up enough crumbs to call ourselves secure, happy, contributing members of society.

I hope someday we can do science for humanity first, not first for our jobs. That would be an ivory tower I'd like to live in.