how noble goals can pave a road to nowhere

Not only can we continue scientific research and space exploration before we solve all the world's problems, we can't afford not to...

Many of those who read this blog are students or involved in scientific research. And as you work on new and exciting innovations, remember that there are plenty of people who think your work is over-rated and the cash used to fund it should be used for curing diseases, eliminating poverty and improving our cities instead. It’s a good old false dichotomy which manages to combine good intentions with the kind of short-sightedness that would place technological advancement and scientific research on the absolute bottom of the priority list. Oh, sure we can go into space or conduct experiments out of sheer curiosity, hoping to discover something new and useful. We just have to do it after feeding all the hungry, curing cancers, Ebola and AIDS, and modernizing the world’s cities. Then, after humanity is living in luxury, you can have a few dollars to play mad scientist…

Yes, there’s a lot of poverty, crime and illness in our world. And yes, there’s always something we can do to be of help to the sick, the needy, and the unfortunate. But that’s the catch. There’s always something wrong and if we devote all our efforts to tackle a never-ending laundry list of problems, we also take away money from vital research and development projects that can help us create jobs, establish new economies, cure disease, or even set up new infrastructures in the developing world. How are you going to modernize cities when instead of developing new generations of cars and smarter, more affordable buildings, the money is being spent just to stay stagnant? How will you cure diseases when you’re not financing the required R&D? And if you will, how would this money get there? What’s more important, helping the poor or curing them of their illnesses?

Or let’s think about this. If the sick in the developed world could afford homes, water and food, they wouldn’t be so sick in the first place, right? But for that to happen, they need good, affordable homes and money to pay for clean food and water. So why shouldn’t an expansive infrastructure project to build new housing centers and attract companies who’ll create jobs take priority over that too? Armed with all these good intentions, we could argue about that’s a better use of our money to help the world until the cows come home. In the end, we’ll still need to solve all these problems and all of them are important.

That’s why this approach is a false dichotomy. It’s not either space exploration and science, or helping the world’s less fortunate. Asking how many starving orphans in Bangladesh the money spent on a space station would feed is disingenuous and manipulative in ways that are difficult to describe with words alone. The fact that using this space station to solve a biological mystery that could lead to a new treatment to control mosquito populations would help the very same orphans as well, never gets brought up by the advocates of this approach.

We need to keep things in perspective here. Eight in ten humans live on less than $10 a day and 50% live on less than $2.50. Need more disheartening statistics? About 72 million kids don’t go to any sort of school and this is probably a very optimistic estimate. Almost 15% of the planet is illiterate and 38% live without sanitary facilities we consider to be absolutely basic. How much money and effort will it take to make even a dent in all these depressing factoids? And how will we help them if we decide to hobble scientific progress that could be harnessed to provide solutions to develop new and better infrastructures or medical treatments?

If anything, it should be our top priority to invest in R&D and apply the lessons learned to helping the world. Creating a Dark Age in the name of lifting the world out of poverty isn’t going to help anyone and implying that every dollar that’s not being invested in complex, high tech science projects which only the experts can analyze for concrete and applicable benefits to the outside world, is going to help feed the homeless, is just plain wrong. Unless you’d want to make the argument that things like learning how to better focus beams in radioactive treatments for a whole range of cancers from a number of particle collider experiments, are a needless waste of money…

# science // disease / global problems / money

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