The Scientific Activist

A few years ago, while I simultaneously enjoyed a mild Texas evening and a few beers with a second-year medical student, my idealistic and outspoken friend argued that as a society we spend way too much money on scientific research. That money should instead, she contended, be spent wholly and directly on fighting global poverty and disease.

I agreed that it should go without saying that improving the world’s lot ought to be our number one priority: an ideal rarely realized due to the pernicious distractions of war, greed, nationalism, ideology, and a variety of other factors. Esoterically, though, I argued that addressing these most basic of human needs should not require that we give up the scientific endeavor. Learning is one of the greatest joys in life, and if we’re not learning, progressing, and creating new knowledge as a society, then what’s the point? Addressing poverty and disease should be considered the baseline (a mark we still fall short of), but science allows us to grow and advance.

More to the point, investing in basic research today enables us to more effectively address poverty and disease in the future. I suppose this point is probably pretty obvious, especially with regards to medicine. And, although there is a constant battle against patents and corporatism to make the fruits of innovation more widely available, it would be virtually impossible to argue that medical science has not been an enormous net positive benefit for people throughout the world.

Of course, that’s not to say that science can’t take on these issues directly. And, in that spirit, the Council of Science Editors today did its part in bringing a discussion on poverty to the forefront of the scientific dialogue with its Global Theme Issue on Poverty and Human Development:

The Council of Science Editors has organized a Global Theme Issue on Poverty and Human Development, in which science journals throughout the world simultaneously publish articles on this topic of worldwide interest on October 22, 2007. The goal of the CSE Global Theme Issue is to stimulate interest and research in poverty and human development and disseminate the results of this research as widely as possible. This is an international collaboration of 235 journals from developed and developing countries.

These 235 journals from 37 countries are publishing more than 750 articles on poverty and human development.

The Global Theme Issue was kicked off this morning with an event at the NIH campus:

This event will promote the simultaneous publication of new articles devoted to the topic of poverty and human development published in more than 230 scientific journals throughout the world. Seven research articles from these journals were selected by a panel of NIH and CSE experts for presentation. New research in these articles examines interventions and projects to improve health and reduce inequities among the poor. A list of all journals participating in the Global Theme Issue is appears below.

Subject areas for this event include: childbirth safety, HIV/AIDS, malaria treatment, food insufficiency and sexual behavior, interventions to improve child survival, physician brain drain from the developing world, and influenza’s impact on children.

Speakers include: NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni; Fogarty International Center Director Roger I. Glass; CSE President Ana Marusic; and National Library of Medicine Deputy Director Betsy Humphreys. Researchers with papers to be published in seven representative participating journals will be moderated by: Catherine DeAngelis, Editor in chief, JAMA and Fiona Godlee, Editor in chief, BMJ.

It all sounds very interesting, and if you weren’t able to attend or watch the live stream of the event, you can still watch the recording here. Getting back to the earlier point, though, events such as this are just one part of a multi-pronged approach that should include everything from funding basic and applied research to providing relief aid to affected countries, and everything between.

Hat tip to A Blog Around the Clock.


  1. #1 John Steinsvold
    October 21, 2009

    An Alternative to Capitalism?

    The following link, takes you to a “utopian” article, entitled “Home of the Brave?” which I wrote and appeared in the Athenaeum Library of Philosophy:

    John Steinsvold