Wasted Research Resources

Wherever you see the heavy hand of government, you can be sure there is a great deal of waste: activities taking place that provide no great benefit. They are there to pad a budget, or as the result of political favor, and certainly wouldn't be undertaken in a more competitive environment. People take up occupations they probably shouldn't be in, and people who could be doing more productive work elsewhere sideline themselves.

Given that something like a third of all medical research in the US is funded by the US government, one would expect to see a great deal of useless research - programs and studies that have no real end beyond consuming dollars and provide second-class information that doesn't advance the boundaries of the possible. Which is exactly the case.

Take this for example:

Thomas B. Shea, PhD, of the Center for Cellular Neurobiology; Neurodegeneration Research University of Massachusetts, Lowell and his research team have carried out a number of laboratory studies demonstrating that drinking apple juice helped mice perform better than normal in maze trials, and prevented the decline in performance that was otherwise observed as these mice aged.

In the most recent study Shea and his team demonstrated that mice receiving the human equivalent of 2 glasses of apple juice per day for 1 month produced less of a small protein fragment, called "beta-amyloid" that is responsible for forming the "senile plaques" that are commonly found in brains of individuals suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

We live in an age of stem cells, cell cultures, rapidly pulling apart biochemistry to establish mechanisms, and designer drugs. Is it not plausible that this sort of work linked above should be beneath someone who is looking to make an actual difference to the future of medicine? Would any self-respecting biotech startup start there? If you're into pulling down government grant funds (or selling food products), then it might be your thing: you could keep on running mouse studies on random dietary alteration after random dietary alteration from here until doomsday. All a complete waste of time in comparison to more modern methods and lines of research.

This sort of work is why I'm always dubious of any government funding budget for science. There's no incentive for it to go towards research that will actually make a difference, and every incentive for it to be wasted on people who could be accomplishing better work elsewhere, or on tasks that only exist in order to fill out a budget.


The government agencies are ill equipped, by their very structures, to deal with the changing world of medicine. Imagine if a number of illnesses of previously unknown origin (actually diagnoses-it can't be known if a set of diagnostic criteria actually describes a discrete illness if there's no known etiology) were discovered to have a common thread, one that could be exploited to identify and treat not only all the diagnoses in the group, but some formerly unrecognized cases as well. That would be wonderful news from a research standpoint and for patients. It would be nearly impossible to get this discovery past the FDA, however, because the FDA can only deal with one diagnosis at a time. The discovery would have to be reviewed separately for each diagnosis--even if the discovery makes the old diagnostic categories obsolete.

Posted by: shegeek at February 7th, 2009 4:12 AM

I suspect you may have been making the point shegeek, but I'm gonna go there anyway: I don't have to imagine. It's called aging.

Posted by: ben at February 8th, 2009 12:54 AM

Actually, I was thinking of the treatment I'm on for my "autoimmune" disorder--it was actually developed for another diagnosis, then found to apply to mine and others. But many of those others are considered to be diseases of aging, and there's speculation that the underlying disease process might contribute to aging directly. So your point is very well taken.

Posted by: shegeek at February 10th, 2009 4:02 AM

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