Saturday, March 14, 2009

Laying Out The Facts

From a recent issue of Nature Biotechnology:

"Obama is clearly a science buff, and is really, honestly, into knowing the facts, having them laid out, and then making the best choices that can be mustered," says a policy watcher who was close to the transition team but is outside the federal government. "It is a whole different approach compared to the 'How can we spin this information?' approach of the [Bush administration]. Back to 'honest-to-goodness' curiosity, which is, yes, incredibly refreshing."

This sounds like it could be good for biotech, but I’m not so refreshed. It seems that in the past the approach of those favoring larger government and regulation has been only to embrace the science that supports their interventions. This is more of a feigned or disingenuous intellectual curiosity, which really is no different than ‘How can we spin this information.’ Policy makers often pretend to embrace science, but really are ‘invoking the name and mystique of science to override other peoples choices’ to borrow a phrase from economist Thomas Sowell.

Examples that come to mind include aggressive attempts to combat climate change, despite the lack of consensus with regard to the effectiveness of such policies. They may have established a consensus that the earth is warming , but that is only the first step in a long process of determining an optimal policy procedure. If we are going to tax carbon or establish a market based cap and trade solution, then we need to be able to determine the relevance of our carbon foot print and put a price on it. Price ranges are all over the board, from the credulous Stern reports estimate of $300/ton to William Nordhaus more rigorous estimate of $30/ton ( which is still 10 times the implied price via Kyoto).

Currently there are private exchanges allowing producers to sell carbon offsets in a voluntary market. We should start from there. By the time we figure out the ‘optimal policy’ it is likely that the private market will have taken care of the problem for us as it has many times in the past. Markets and technological change have never allowed us to run out of copper, coal, cattle, oil ,or numerous other natural resources, there is no reason to believe they will allow us to run out of clean air. Some interventions may be necessary, to establish property rights ( which is what cap and trade does) but we are a long way from having the science to support them at this time. As Dr. Nordhaous concludes ‘the central questions about global-warming policy--how much, how fast, and how costly—remain open.’

With the current stimulus package flying in the face of everything we have learned from macroeconomic research over the last 60 years we have more reason to wonder just how much of our future polices will be the result of ‘knowing the facts, having them laid out, and then making the best choices that can be mustered.’

There has certainly been a problem in the past with closed mindedness and fact spinning with regard the environmental and health benefits of biotechnology ( although I would say that this was likely due more to environmental hypochondriacs and those that are averse to capitalism and technology on the left , as opposed to the Bush administration’s policies) However, if the current administration is open minded and curious about the science of agriculture and willing to embrace the evidence and communicate that to others, that will be a great thing. As stated later in the article:

"The EU approach has helped keep African countries from adopting GM [genetically modified] crops," agrees De Greef of EuropaBio. "We hope if the EU and US become less adversarial, it could remove pressure from Africa, which feels forced to choose between US or EU regulations."

The current administration may warm up much better to the Europeans, and as a result win some influence that could be beneficial to the biotech industry. That would be refreshing, as long as we are not selling them on our policies in exchange for some of their more troubling ideas regarding healthcare , taxes, and unemployment.

Source: Nature Biotechnology 27, 237 - 244 (2009)

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