Public Research Funding (warning: political!)

Post date: Aug 17, 2011 8:32:58 PM

I'm in the middle of an online training "course" on IRB (Institutional Review Board) policy, procedure, history, justification, etc. Basically, training for how to properly craft an experiment involving human subjects and all that entails: minimizing risk, obtaining subjects' consent, and so forth. A Good Thing (TM) -- it is well and proper to take the utmost caution in these matters. Coming from a engineering research background I never had to worry about such things before now so I'm learning quite a bit.

One of the cornerstone documents in this line of inquiry is the 1979 Belmont Report, which sets out some of the practical and ethical underpinnings of research involving people. One quote in particular caught my eye:

Finally, whenever research supported by public funds leads to the development of therapeutic devices and procedures, justice demands both that these not provide advantages only to those who can afford them and that such research should not unduly involve persons from groups unlikely to be among the beneficiaries of subsequent applications of the research. (Part B, section 3)

This, to me, relates to two current policy debates.

The first is in regards to pharmaceuticals. Much (most?) research into new drugs is ultimately government-funded. Yet any new drug brought to market gets locked up by patents for 20 years, allowing the producer to charge extremely high prices.

The second is in regards to academic publishing. Again, a lot of academic research is government-funded, yet the results of that research typically get published in privately-managed journals for which one must pay for access. There are many, myself included, who believe that government-funded research should be freely available to all citizens; this, of course, is opposed by the publishers who make lots of money from journal subscriptions.

Both of these issues are contrary to the "justice demands both that these not provide advantages only to those who can afford them" clause from the Belmont Report, a report that is policy for the US government.

Something to chew on.