The Stem Cell Scandals and Economic Growth

Michael Mandel

I feel terribly sorry for Hwang Woo Suk, the Korean stem cell scientist. In the space of a few weeks, he's gone from being one of the best known scientists in the world to the verge of complete disgrace. Even if most of his work is valid, he is a shattered man.

I feel equally sorry for the politicians--in Korea, in the U.S., and elsewhere--who have touted stem cell research as an easy route to more jobs and faster growth. In fact, the phrases "stem cells" and "economic growth" seem permanently glued together. One would almost think that embryonic stem cells could be directly injected into a stagnant economy to make it young and healthy again.

For example, the Korean government hailed Hwang "as a national hero and leader of a project that could serve as a key engine of economic growth.” California, of course, has pledged $3 billion for stem cell research over the next ten years. And on the other side of the country, the Newark Star-Ledger wrote today that

New Jersey became the first state in the country to award public funding for human embryonic stem cell research yesterday, granting $5 million to 17 scientists at university, nonprofit and corporate labs. The work will be focused on potential therapies for devastating and debilitating disorders.

p>"We're phoning the scientists tonight and we're sending out their contracts on Monday," said Sherrie Preische, a physicist who is executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology.

California taxpayers approved a $3 billion bond issue last year to support stem cell research. However, none of the money has been distributed because the effort is tied up in legal challenges. Ohio taxpayers have also supported adult stem cell research but have shied away from the more controversial embryonic work.

Many states, including Wisconsin, Connecticut and New York, have laid out ambitious funding plans but none have come as far as New Jersey. "We've checked with national legislative organizations, international biological groups and everyone says the same thing -- we're the first," Preische said.

To an extent, this is all well and good. As readers of my blog, BW articles and books should know, I yield to no one in my support for more money for scientific research. Economic studies show, beyond a doubt, that technological change is the major force driving long-run economic growth and rising living standards (see, for example, my 2004 book Rational Exuberance). And if anything is going to bail us out of our long-term problems (energy, global warming, rising medical costs), it's going to be technological breakthroughs.

However, the stem cell scandals remind us that the technological road to growth is long and far more uncertain than it seems. New technologies, even the most promising ones, are hell to get working, and even harder to make commercially viable. History is littered with great ideas which turned out to be dead ends--and there's no way of predicting ahead of time which ones those will be.

I firmly believe that the ultimate impact of any new technology on the economy is fundamentally unpredictable. And I mean 'fundamentally unpredictable' here in a very strong sense--if you attempt to identify today the economically important new technologies of 2015 or 2025, you will do no better than chance.

It may turn out that new ways of doing collaborative research, using Internet-based tools, can accelerate the process. I'm impressed, for example, by Kevin Kelly's writings on the innovations in scientific method. But at least for now, it still seems to take 20-25 years for a new technology to really make an economic impact.

From that perspective, the stem cell scandals start to make more sense. Hwang yielded to the pressure to make a new technology more certain, more mature, more economically important than it could possibly ever be at this stage.

The policy implication, on the global, national, and local level, is that politicians should spread their research largesse over a diversified portfolio of scientific areas. Yes, stem cell research may turn out to be the next big thing or the essential building block for the next scientific revolution--or it may not.

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