One of the main arguments that is used for science spending crosses all frontiers in the developed world: Our country/group of countries is falling behind others in a particular science area! Today's Financial Times has an article (subscription $) falling into this familiar category regarding European prescription drugs R&D. In my opinion, the argument is nothing more than scaremongering, even if true. The argument annoys the hell out of me, because it is a rather crude attempt to manipulate base emotions.
By way of background, Americans spend about twice as much as do Europeans for prescription drugs. Pharmaceutical companies doing business in the US have fat profit margins that they seek to protect by discovering new drugs and patenting them. In simple terms, if a country spends more on patent drugs, the country will get more R&D on new drugs. We need not prepare any expensive reports to know that this is cause and effect, although the European Commission presumably spent a lot of money for one that leads with the following argumentation.
The US is increasingly dominating new medicine development at Europe's expense, when measured by labour productivity, influential patent filings, research collaboration and new drug launches, it says.
Recent EU efforts to reduce the gap in "high value-added" pharmaceutical and biotechnology work have been ineffective, Fabio Pammolli, author of the study and professor of economics and management at the University of Florence, told the FT.
With that rhetorical scaffolding, you can see where this is headed. A tale of continetal woe versus the United States...
Prof Pammolli also calls for greater collaboration and competition between European research institutes. He proposes a shift from work carried out in isolation by companies, to US-style market-driven "virtuous networks" between companies, hospitals and universities.
"The [French] Pasteur Institute co-operates more with the [US] National Institutes of Health than with the [German] Max Planck Institute," he said. At the same time he argues that there should be more EU-wide competitive research funding, rather than member states largely funding their own national facilities.
Based on data in the period 1996-2002, his new findings include: 70 per cent of world drug research and development collaboration originated in the US against 25 per cent in Europe; 70 per cent of "new chemical entities", the basis of innovative medicines, were launched first in the US - normally one to two years ahead of in Europe; More than half of total global patents were registered in the US, and their influence was disproportionate, representing 70 per cent of academic citations.
All of these reported results are obvious before the writing, even if the numbers are unknown. But the debate would be much better served by raising the most fundamental question in a neutral manner -- i.e., should Europe spend more money on drugs R&D based on the needs and curiosity of the people in Europe?
As an aside, over the last 5 or 10 years, the United States federal government shifted several tens of billions in R&D funding away from defense and aerospace to basic and applied life sciences research at the National Institutes of Health without such scaremongering and with broad political support. It was done because the life sciences are proving to be fruitful subjects to research right now and our longer human life cycles may benefit disproportionally from this fruit. This is an argument that is reasoned and relies on the better angels of our intellect.
So should Europe increase spending on drugs? From this side of the pond, our system is amazingly expensive. I hesitate to suggest that Europe shift the fantastic sum of 1% to 2% of its economy per annum to patent drugs to be on roughly equal footing with the U.S., considering that the life expectancy in the U.S. is approximately no better (or worse) than that of developed Europe. Further, Europe is successfully riding the coattails of U.S. research. Meanwhile, American consumers are shopping in Canada for their drugs. Is this the system that Europe wants?
A better discussion would focus on the opportunities available. Are there very many areas in life sciences that currently do not have sufficient coverage? Are there any potentially high payoff areas with which Europe has longer and deeper experience than anybody else? Are there any areas with which Europeans are more curious? Are there other areas of science of higher payoff in which Europeans can participate?
I wish the debate on all government R&D was done on such a basis.