Monday, November 14, 2005

Rant: Responsible research

I was home, visiting my folks recently, and as well as a much needed holiday, it meant I got to do a lot of the things I really like doing -- including watching the news, which I am always far too busy to do at home. Anyways, while I was there I heard about some very promising research into how to expand the human lifespan...something to do with worms, I believe.

Now, I'm sure to many of you this sounds like a grand idea, but to me even doing this research sounds plain irresponsible. Why, you might ask would I think a strange thing like that? Well, there are two reasons. The first reason is the gross overpopulation of the world already, and the second is the waste of resources that have gone into this work. Yes, it is highly commercialisable work, yes, the people who figure it out are going to make a fortune, but is it really responsible?

There are a few reasons, to my mind, why this work is irresponsible. There is the problem of the aging population. There is the disparity in life expectancies around the world. And then there is the quality of life issue. In the end, of course, these things all come down to the same thing -- the almighty dollar.

So, in more detail, the developed wold already has an aging population. This causes all sorts of social problems (and no, not just with the grannies on the mobility scooters who all seem to have a deathwish). In a nutshell, aging is an expensive business; when the elderly retire at 60 or 65, in many countries they may expect to receive a state funded pension. On top of that elderly people require and consume more medical care than other sectors of the population (no surprises there, right?) and potentially also consume more social services such as meals on wheels. In an aging population, ever more people are drawing on these services, and ever fewer are working to pay for them. Unless we accept a later retirement age and are healthier when we retire (unlikely, in an age where obesity is causing more problems at a younger age than ever before), having people live even longer than they already do can only exacerbate these problems.

Not only does the deleoped world world have an aging population, but there is a massive disparity between the life expectancies of people here, and people in third wolrd countries. In fact, as life expectancies in the west increase, they are falling in Africa. A child born this year in Norway may expect to to live to nearly 80, and a child born in Japan to over eighty. On the other hand a child born in India this year will live to approximately 64, a Vietnamese child will live to nearly 70, and a child from Bostwana will live only 40 years, a number which has fallen from nealy 65 fifteen years ago, and is set to fall further in the next ten years. There are any number of causes for this, AIDS being one of the more touted ones, but thereare other problems in the third world two (war, poverty and hunger, according to the ads I keep seeing on TV) which seem to me as though they must play a part. For the purposes of this rant, though, the causes do not matter, what does matter is the ethical side of the question, specifically is it ethical to be doing research to keep wealthy westerners alive longer when third world populations are dying in droves?

And now to the quality of life question, the one closest ot my own heart. If someone offered me a drug that would keep me alive twenty years longer in similar health to my present state, I would decline it -- even if it had no side effects and it was free. You might think I am too youg to know that I would do this for certain, and you might think I am just plain mad. I would say no, to both -- I have a chronic illness that for a long time I believed would kill me, and this gives me a different perspective on life. I do not want to live longer unless my (currently incurable) disease is cured -- not put into long-term remission by a drug with side effects, as it is now, but once-and-for-all cured. Now, as mentioned already, many elderly people become sick as they age -- and none of the sicknesses sound very pleasant. I would rather have a shorter, pleasanter life, than a longer, less pleasant one (and if the money wasted spent on this research is not to be spent or sorting out the third world's problems, it would be nice if was spent on debilitating lifelong illnesses, or things that affect kids, or whatever, rather than reversing a natural process).

The only responsible purpose I can see for this research is to help those with premature aging (not just a few lines earlier than they would like, but kids who get old and die by the time they're 18 like in that know, the one with Robin Williams). Otherwise it is just pandering to the western obsession with Peter Pan; we never want to grow old, and we sure don't want to die (for heavens sake, people are willing to undergo life-threatening surgery to look artifical -- and suppsoedly younger). I would ask that we all learn to age with dignity. And if you are a fellow researcher, I implore you to think about the wider implications of your research, and what costs it may have to society as a whole weighed against the benefits.