Science, Money, & Human Activities

Science, Money, & Human Activities

The world of science prides itself on objectivity. Our scientific measurements should be objective, free from bias, and repeatable by any person in any place. The conclusions of science should likewise be objective, clear, and understandable from the outside. We want science to be open, discussed, and the implications of results rigorously debated so that we can make new discoveries and develop new knowledge to help propel humanity forward.
 
 
“But science is not an enterprise that takes place on some superior moral or spiritual plane above the rest of human activity,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens. Science may strive for objectivity and independence, but it still takes place in the human world and is conducted by humans. Additionally, “science is a very expensive affair … most scientific studies are funded because somebody believes they can help attain some political, economic, or religious goal,” continues Harari.
 
 
No matter how much objectivity and independence we try to imbue into science, human activities influence what, how, and when science is done. The first obstacle, as Harari notes, is money. Deciding to fund something always contains some sort of political decision. Whether we as individuals are looking to fund something, or whether a collective is looking to fund something, there is always a choice between how the final dollars could be used. Funding could be provided for science that helps develop a vaccine that predominantly impacts poor people in a country far away. Funding could be provided for a scientific instrument that could help address climate change. Or funding could be used to make a really cool laser that doesn’t have any immediate and obvious uses, but which would be really cool. Depending on political. goals, individual donor desires, and a host of other factors, different science could be funded and conducted. The cost of science means that it will always in some ways be tied to human desires, which means biases will always creep into the equation.
 
 
It is important to note that science is built with certain elements to buffer the research, results, findings, and conclusions from bias. Peer review for example limits the publication of studies that are not done in good faith or that make invalid conclusions. But still, science takes place in society and culture and is conducted by humans. What those individual humans chose to study and how they understand the world will influence the ways in which they choose and design studies. This means that bias will still creep into science, in terms of determining what to study and how it will be studied. Early material scientists working with plastics were enthusiastic about studies that developed new plastics with new uses, where today materials scientists may be more likely to study the harms of plastics and plastic waste. Both fields of research can produce new knowledge, but with very different consequences for the world stemming from different cultural biases from the human researchers.
 
 
This is not to say that science cannot be trusted and should not be supported by individuals and collectives. Science has improved living standards for humans across the globe and solved many human problems. We need to continue pushing forward with new science to continue to improve living standards, and possibly just to maintain existing living standards and expectations. Nevertheless, we do have to be honest and acknowledge that science does not exist in a magical space free from bias and other human fallacies.
GoFundMe For Healthcare

GoFundMe for Healthcare

We all complain about our personal healthcare costs and we know that healthcare spending in the US is a huge percentage of GDP, but what isn’t clear is that the vast majority of spending and healthcare costs come from a small minority of patients. Cancer care, treatment for severe trauma, and therapy for rare diseases can be incredibly costly and unpredictable. For many people who face such substantial challenges, GoFundMe ends up being a huge support, and I think it is worth asking ourselves if that is a reasonable way for people to be able to afford medical care in the United States.

 

As Dave Chase writes in The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call, “In 2013, more than 1.5 million Americans lived in households that experienced a health-related bankruptcy. More than three-quarters of those people had insurance. Some say medical bills may also be the top cause of homelessness. Nearly half of all GoFundMe crowdfunding campaigns are to pay for medical-related expenses.”

 

Our health insurance, what we pay for and what our employers offer us to help ensure that if necessary, we can afford medical care, does not actually help us afford medical care in the case of an emergency or major diagnosis. Medical related bankruptcies are not a rare occurrence, even for those who have insurance, and if Chase’s quote is accurate that a large cause of homelessness is medical bills, then the cost of care that is supposed to help someone be healthy, likely pushes people into incredibly unhealthy living circumstances. The fact that people have to turn to crowdfunding moonshots for treatment is a clear indication that the healthcare system in America is failing those who need it most.

 

I would argue that much of the social unrest in our country is related to stagnated wages. Chase argues that wages have stagnated as businesses cope with increasing costs for providing healthcare to employees. Americans don’t see their wages increase, but do see the cost of healthcare rising, and many face bankruptcy and must turn to GoFundMe for healthcare related expenses. It is not hard to imagine how healthcare costs contribute to an unhappy populace that doesn’t trust public officials and elected leaders who have not been able to remedy the situation, or business leaders who have not provided real value in the health benefits they offer employees.

Think Like a System – Act Like an Entrepreneur

In The New Localism authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak quote Matthew Taylor of the U.K.’s Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce by writing, “it’s necessary for a city to think like a system and act like an entrepreneur. Thinking like a system requires taking a long and broad view of the regional economy.”

 

Cities cannot just assume that people will move to them, that current businesses will stay, and that a market will pop up on its own to make the city thrive. Cities need to consider all of the elements, from education and workforce development to infrastructure development, that are necessary to create regions where people want to live and work. They need to look at their regional economy and identify the areas (not just a single area) where they can be competitive and have unique advantages from institutional capital like universities to geologic benefits like attractive rivers or easily accessible ports. Cities have to figure out what it is that they can maximize and offer to people, and work with local groups and organizations to rebuild and promote the things that make them so attractive.

 

Acting like an entrepreneur requires that cities think about innovations and opportunities to invest. This is a challenge for cities because investments with public dollars that go south can be a reason to vote leaders out of office and can draw criticism from local residents who view their tax payer dollars as going to waste. With that in mind, cities, like any entrepreneur, must be able to cultivate multiple streams of funding for the plans they adopt and projects they take on. This requires working with organizations outside the formal city government to co-invest in projects that benefit the entire city. It also requires networking and building support systems with groups that can lead and groups that can provide the necessary assistance to get things done.

 

When cities adequately assess their economic prospects and develop networks to share risk and coordinate progress, real problem solving and real action can be taken. Cities can help provide the infrastructure and social capital needed for firms to move in and for organizations to feel connected to the places where they are located. This benefits the cities and provides a reason for companies to stay and invest locally by further developing the institutions that make the city an attractive and competitive place.