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March 14, 2013
Does Baldness Get More Funding Than Malaria?
OK, let's fact-check Bill Gates today, shall we?
Capitalism means that there is much more research into male baldness than there is into diseases such as malaria, which mostly affect poor people, said Bill Gates, speaking at the Royal Academy of Engineering's Global Grand Challenges Summit.
"Our priorities are tilted by marketplace imperatives," he said. "The malaria vaccine in humanist terms is the biggest need. But it gets virtually no funding. But if you are working on male baldness or other things you get an order of magnitude more research funding because of the voice in the marketplace than something like malaria."
Gates' larger point, that tropical diseases are an example of market failure, stands. But I don't think this example does. I have never yet worked on any project in industry that had anything to do with baldness, while I have actually touched on malaria. Looking around the scientific literature, I see many more publications on potential malaria drugs than I see potential baldness drugs (in fact, I'm not sure if I've ever seen anything on the latter, after minoxidil - and its hair-growth effects were discovered by accident during a cardiovascular program). Maybe I'm reading the wrong journals.
But then, Gates also seems to buy into the critical-shortage-of-STEM idea:
With regards to encouraging more students into STEM education, Gates said: "It's kind of surprising that we have such a deficit of people going into those fields. Look at where you can have the most interesting job that pays well and will have impact on society -- all three of those things line up to say science and engineering and yet in most rich countries we see decline. Asia is an exception."
The problem is, there aren't as many of these interesting, well-paying jobs around as there used to be. Any discussion of the STEM education issue that doesn't deal with that angle is (to say the least) incomplete.
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