Lessons from The Hunger Games about balancing science: public versus private

The Hunger GamesTwo articles in today’s New York Times got me thinking about how science can be pursued privately or publicly. I believe that getting that mix of public and private science right will directly determine the fate of humanity.

In a pop-science NYT piece, James Gorman writes about how people may in the not so distant future pursue Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Biology to tinker with genetics and create new organisms. Presumably, such DIY efforts would be privately funded and perhaps might be done in someone’s garage the same way that Apple Computer started? As an analogy, Gorman writes about the mythical Mockingjay bird from the wildly popular book and now film, The Hunger Games. The Mockingjay came into being in The Hunger Games universe after genetically engineered avian spies, Jabberjays, ended up breeding with Mockingbirds in the wild. Hence, the chimeric or hybrid Mockingjay.

Could this really happen? Maybe.

In the second article by Kenneth Chang, Private Sector Edges Deeper in Space, the topic of for-profit space ventures is discussed. Such space capitalism is based on private (and also some public) scientific efforts. Sort of a DIY rocket science. It is perhaps not coincidental that for-profit space exploration science is revving up just as NASA seems to be in decline, a decline many of us hope will be reversed.

In these two examples of private science, government funding is not the key driver. It got me pondering. For advancing science, what is the best mix of private and public funding?

Part of the impetus for this question also comes from my participating in an emerging battle in the biomedical field over regulatory issues related to stem cells. For-profit scientists uniformly push for weaker governmental regulatory control over science. Publicly-supported scientists tend to lean toward a significantly higher degree of regulatory control.

For the greater good, public funding of science makes sense and accelerates scientific progress. However, privately funded science has some advantages as well in that if someone can make money off of science, arguably that science may progress at an even faster clip.  When it comes to biomedical sciences, involvement of private, for-profits is widely view as essential to translating bench science to the bedside.

At the same time, private companies conducting science often play by their own rules and fight regulation as mentioned earlier. In the dystopia of The Hunger Games we see many examples of private, dictatorial science run amuck, but in at least our current reality that kind of science seems far more likely to occur at the hands of private, for-profit companies or driven by mega-billionaires. A fictional example of that is Jurassic Park, where dinosaurs are cloned at the behest of the eccentric billionaire John Hammond and cause disaster. We have also seen in the real world, fictional reports of human cloning by the Raëlian Church.

I believe that the right mix of private and public science is crucial for the future of humanity as we face important issues such as stem cells, cloning, energy and space exploration. We need both, but how to find the balance?

I love DIY science and wish I had time to do it. Right now, to my knowledge, it would not be illegal for me to DIY clone an entirely new bird or dog species in my garage. I wouldn’t. But could I do it? I don’t know, but in theory probably if I had enough money. A team including one of the same scientists who brought us the first cloned dog, Snuppy, is now trying to clone Wooly Mammoths. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because it seems cool?

In theory, a billionaire could perhaps clone people or least try. Surprisingly, that too is not illegal. I’ve written before about how I believe real human cloning is coming soon and will throw humanity for a loop. It could be Justin Beiber or Einstein or some billionaire or just some ordinary person, but when that day comes we have definitely opened a Pandora’s Box as a result of DIY private science.

As technologies such as genomics and stem cells advance more quickly than individual human wisdom, balancing public and private scientific efforts and regulatory statutes could possibly promote a collective scientific and public wisdom to more effectively manage how science influences humanity.

I think we need both private and public science to move forward….the tricky part is the balance.