Articles that talk about the huge economic pay-offs of scientific research often make me nervous, not because I disagree with the fundamental thesis but because I'm afraid we might make the war-on-cancer mistake, promising an overly specific result in an unrealistic time frame. I also worry about encouraging commentators who argue that we shouldn't bother taking even small steps to address looming problems because some new technology invariably pop up and solve everything.
Take this passage:
Is Alzheimer's research a good use of our money? Almost certainly, but that doesn't mean that these advances will come through or that, if they do, they will arrive in the time to help with the budget problems associated with baby boomers.
Health economists and demographers, surveying the steady aging of the U.S. population, are predicting a dramatic rise in the cost of dealing with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, which already accounts for $172 billion in total spending annually. That number is projected to climb to more than $1 trillion by 2050 as legions of baby boomers reach the age of onset and the population generally ages. Meanwhile, our annual federal Medicare expenditure on Alzheimer's is projected to increase from $88 billion today to $627 billion, far exceeding the current total Medicare budget (about $468 billion this year).
There's just one hope here: scientific advances that will slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease and ultimately uncover a cure. But, ironically, the prospects for scientists who seek federal dollars to study the disease are among the worst in the entire government science infrastructure. The National Institute on Aging, which supports most of this work, is now turning down more than 90% of scientifically meritorious research grant proposals due to an inability to finance them.
Of course, the expected value of this kind of research is very good, particularly when you add in the possibility of an advance in a field that has nothing to do with Alzheimer's. Remember that one of the most profitable drugs in recent memory (Viagra) was originally developed to treat hypertension rather than erectile dysfunction.