British Columbia flooded with drug money


The great challenge of being politically conscious is to remain critical (one might say ‘skeptical’, although I don’t think that word means the same thing in this context that we usually mean) of propaganda and showy announcements. Whether you think politicians are cravenly trying to pull a fast one on the populace, or if you’re like me and think that politicians simply begin to think in propagandist terms, the sign of a person who is cognitively engaged with politics is the ability to parse both the positives and negatives from political announcements.

To give you an idea of the way in which I wrestle through the political landscape, here’s an example of a recent development that I found particularly interesting:

The B.C. government will announce Tuesday that it is pumping nearly $40-million into two private-public research institutes in Vancouver: $29-million for the Centre for Drug Research and Development at the University of British Columbia, and $10-million for Genome British Columbia.

But it’s the investment coming from outside the province that impresses B.C. Health Minister Mike de Jong. “We see a shift happening, a global shift,” Mr. de Jong said in an interview. “We see more people recognizing that British Columbia is the bridge between Canada – and sometimes North America – and Asia.”

Roughly $1.5-billion of mainly private-sector investment has flowed into the province’s life-sciences industry in the past 18 months, including new investments in local startups such as Welichem Biotech Inc., Allon Therapeutics Inc., Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corp. and Xenon Pharmaceuticals Inc., according to B.C. government figures.

The industry now employs 11,700 people in British Columbia and includes 340 companies.

So if you’re the health minister, or the minister of industry, or even the premier, this is all excellent news. You’re bringing high-paying jobs into the province – jobs that don’t rely on the traditional economy of resource exploitation (fisheries, forestry, energy), jobs that will employ university graduates with nice big fat paycheques. If you’re a resident of British Columbia, maybe one with high-school aged children, this is also excellent news – the likelihood of reliable employment in a technical field is always welcome news.

I am not at all insensitive to these arguments. Any chance you have to diversify your economy is also a chance to disaster-proof it. It’s much easier to tip over a chair that has only two or three legs. The more oars you have in the water driving your economy forward, the less momentum you lose if one of your oarsmen suddenly craps out on you. This means, ostensibly, not only more money for social services like housing and welfare, but a diminished likelihood that you’ll need to abandon your responsibilities on those things if one of your industrial bubbles bursts. In the short term, there can be major payoff for a sunk investment of $40 million.

That being said, a good government has to think of the long-term outcomes of its policies as well*. A major source of my concern comes from things like this:

Vancouver’s Centre for Drug Research and Development was created in 2007 with contributions from Ottawa and the B.C. and Alberta governments, as well as several drug companies. Its aim is to turn university research into commercially viable products. Genome B.C. invests in and manages large genetics-related research projects.

These are not scientific grants in the most ideologically liberal sense of the idea. These are research and development grants – essentially investments made in the knowledge sector with the explicit expectation of return on investment. It is essentially the government throwing its hand into the pharmaceutical development game. I don’t really have a major problem with that (despite it not always being a good idea for the government to be engaged in things best left to the private sector), but I do have a problem with government prioritizing scientific profits over scientific inquiry.

The government is the only reliable source of research funding for the types of scientific questions that don’t immediately lend themselves to marketability. There needs to be more investment in this kind of ‘pure science’, not less. These ‘grants’ are targeted at making business profitable, which is a dubious function for government to be filling so directly. Additionally, we run the risk of turning university biomedical and pharmacy programs into de facto ‘feeder schools’ to provide workers for pharmaceutical firms. While the prospect of immediate post-graduate employment is undoubtedly a good thing, I fear the further commodification of university degrees.

The other thing to be wary of is what happens when your economy becomes dependent on the pharmaceutical industry for its viability. In a stroke, pharmaceutical interests become provincial interests – what is good for the company is what is good for British Columbia. I know this threat because it happened in Quebec, the province many of these companies are abandoning. Pharmaceutical firms were able to write much of Quebec’s drug policy, rather than it being based on good evidence (which isn’t actually what informs policy anyway, but it’s nice to pretend). The bigger a slice of the total economic pie pharmaceutical companies represent, the more influence they will have. Such is the nature of all corporate interests.

If I were the premier, or rather some kind of politically omnipotent entity (since Christy Clark’s hands are tied by a whole bunch of things that will undoubtedly result in her screwing this up royally), I would take this opportunity to grow the pharmaceutical industry in the short term. After about 3 years of gestation, I would use the (hopefully) resulting middle-class tax base growth to fund the kinds of education programs that foster entrepreneurs and thinkers, ensuring that the generation coming immediately behind all of the new pharmaceutical technicians would further diversify the economy in the coming generations.

Of course, I’d do all of this after getting the drug companies to set aside a little party stash for me. After all, what good is power if you’re not going to abuse it, amirite?

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*Unless you’re a conservative government. In that case, you do as much damage as you can before getting thrown out of office, and then wait patiently for everyone to forget how awful you were when you had power.

Comments

  1. cassmorrison says

    A lot of stuff in Alberta has been developed through initial government investment (I have worked in research provided by those funds). It is important for proof of concept and getting companies on board (they hate to actually spend money as you know). A big one locally is what started as the bi-provincial upgrader. AB and SK funded it, SK got out after 10 years and AB after 20. Remains one of the desired employers. Because of government involvement it helped provide a lot of services to the town as well.

  2. says

    *Unless you’re a conservative government. In that case, you do as much damage as you can before getting thrown out of office, and then wait patiently for everyone to forget how awful you were when you had power.

    Don’t forget about condescending to everyone about how liberal governments are just as bad and ignore the man behind the curtain the evidence showing that not only do conservative policies not work but also that historically ‘conservatives’ have ended up on the side of privilege and authoritarianism because you don’t understand the need for diversity of ideas. Conservatism is an elaborate ideology with centuries of history! You must respect that!

  3. F says

    Noe I’m hearing, in my head, “Respect the Conservatism” as if it were, “Respect the Pizza.”

  4. BigRed says

    Given what you said about parsing propaganda, I am wondering a bit about: “despite it not always being a good idea for the government to be engaged in things best left to the private sector”

    Care to explain what exactly is best left to the private sector?

    Also:” I know this threat because it happened in Quebec, the province many of these companies are abandoning. ”

    Doesn’t this mean that different Canadian provinces are engaging in modern-day smoke-stack chasing, damaging each other, while the federal government could step in to do research funding, *without* the risk of blowing up welfare funding since the federal government, contrary to province governments, is not revenue constraint? To be more explicit – shouldn’t research funding be taken away from province governments, given the issues you describe?

  5. says

    Care to explain what exactly is best left to the private sector?

    Wow is this ever a tough question. A world where the government is completely divorced from private sector involvement is a bad one (we’re seeing shades of that in the USA, where the tail wags the dog rather too much). There are some functions (like health care) that government does better than the private sector, or does because the private sector won’t see a profit on it.

    Similarly, a world in which government does everything and there is no private sector also stifles creativity. Competition is a good driving force for innovation, and monopolistic control makes that kind of innovation unnecessary.

    The balance is struck somewhere between them, and I don’t know how one goes about determining which is ‘best’, except to constantly be correcting when things get too far one direction or the other. I do suspect, however, that the intense competition between pharmaceutical firms forces them to be innovative and, so long as we make sure that this innovation has benefits for patients, that’s a positive thing.

    shouldn’t research funding be taken away from province governments, given the issues you describe?

    The federal government isn’t exactly immune from this kind of regional favouritism either, but we’ll shelve that for the moment.

    I am certainly not saying that investment by government actors is a bad thing. I really did try to point out the positive aspects of a new industry moving into my province. I also don’t think that companies are leaving Quebec because they are being poached – that’s too simplistic an explanation (and I have no data to back up any one conclusion at any rate). The thing that happened in Quebec was a near overrun of the political process by private firms. There is nothing that the federal government could really do about that. It’s like the phenomenon of ‘company towns’ where the life of the city is wholly dependent on the prosperity of the company – it’s just bad news.

  6. BigRed says

    Thanks for the quick reply…and yes, I am very much aware how difficult a question this is. :)

    But this is also what bothered me about your original assertion re: the government being involved in things best left to the private sector because to me it read very much as if you implied that this was *clearly* such a case.

    Because, to be honest, I think that pharmaceutical research is very much an area where the private sector will have the wrong priorities. You write

    I do suspect, however, that the intense competition between pharmaceutical firms forces them to be innovative and, so long as we make sure that this innovation has benefits for patients, that’s a positive thing.

    I’d argue, and would defend my assertion, that the only thing the private sector is better than the public sector is short-term, high-margin profit – and even there the Chinese have shown that this is a question of how the government understands its role. Now, arguably the biggest civilisatory achievement of the post-WW2 period is the eradication of small pox – which would have been a terrible endeavor from a business perspective: vaccinating those that cannot afford to pay for it and if the product works as planned, it can never be sold again. Similarly for anything that would effectively tackle Malaria or deal with the HIV strains predominant in Africa. What we get instead in the developed world are statins, diabetes medication, and drugs for erectile dysfunction. So pharma research is arguably an area where the public sector *does* better than the private sector. At this point I usually branch out into discussing the internet, and space programs/satellite technology – both boons for society yet with ROI horizons that put them outside of private, profit-driven reach.

    I am a European left-winger so I guess my perspective is just a bit different, and I mean no offense but for now I assume that you’ve internalized certain propaganda points about the role of public and private sector that are predominant in North American discourse and do *not* question them. That’s the only way I can explain

    Competition is a good driving force for innovation, and monopolistic control makes that kind of innovation unnecessary.

    in this context since you seem you ignore that competition doesn’t have to be for market share. Academic research is (distorted by the currently existing crappy funding schemes) very much driven by competition, for name recognition, influence, Deutungshoheit and therefore there’s no reason to believe that a government monopoly on research would stifle innovation – as you yourself point out in your post when you write

    There needs to be more investment in this kind of ‘pure science’, not less.

  7. says

    I’d argue, and would defend my assertion, that the only thing the private sector is better than the public sector is short-term, high-margin profit

    The example I use for this is the Human Genome Project, where the ability to think outside the original parameters of the experiment (and being able to fund at a greater level than government was willing to devote) resulted in a much faster and much more efficient final product. It is certainly not the case that private sector is always better than public, but I don’t think it’s never the case either.

    I’d argue, and would defend my assertion, that the only thing the private sector is better than the public sector is short-term, high-margin profit

    I’d generally agree with this statement, albeit with the above caveat that I don’t think it’s always true. I am certainly open to being wrong.

    for now I assume that you’ve internalized certain propaganda points about the role of public and private sector that are predominant in North American discourse and do *not* question them.

    Certainly possible, and I’ll spend some time mulling this over.

    you seem you ignore that competition doesn’t have to be for market share. Academic research is (distorted by the currently existing crappy funding schemes) very much driven by competition, for name recognition, influence…

    Interestingly, I’ve made this exact same point to other people who spin conspiracy theories about how scientists won’t research the ‘real cures’ for cancer because they’re not marketable.

    Thanks for your insightful comments. You’ve given me a great deal to think about.

  8. BigRed says

    Sorry if I am overstaying my welcome but thinking about the “competition fosters innovation, monopoly stifles it” under the shower, I realized that this is *also* very much a statement that applies to profit-driven enterprise. A monopolist in a capitalist market of course doesn’t have any motivation to innovate.

    But this point of view underestimates individuals, in my opinion. Creativity is not, cannot, be driven by profit-interests, otherwise we’d have many more creatives. Instead, artists, and researchers, are creative because they can be and because they can express themselves in this manner. Think about it: if I know I am still gonna be gainfully employed tomorrow, no matter what, why not let my imagination run wild and try weird stuff to see what works? It is the threat of material sanctions that stifles all kinds of innovation that cannot be turned into profit.

  9. says

    Some people are intrinsically motivated, others require incentives. I don’t think that if you took away motives like profit or recognition you’d see the world go on unchanged. Maybe you would, but I doubt it. There are many creative types who are certainly driven by profit interests. The music business is full of them. Some of them are musicians, others are producers and A&Rs and promoters and graphic designers and a whole host of other things.

    I think you’re more or less correct that assigning 100% profit motive to all people is a gross overstatement. I am a living example of a person who engages in a time-consuming pursuit for very little other than internal motivation. But there are many others who toil in the explicit hope of recognition, either financial or popular. That doesn’t make them less talented or valuable, it just means their engines use different fuel.

    And seriously, don’t worry about ‘overstaying your welcome’. Even if such a thing were possible, it wouldn’t be for asking intelligent questions (even if they are challenging to answer or differ from my worldview).

  10. says

    The government is the only reliable source of research funding for the types of scientific questions that don’t immediately lend themselves to marketability. There needs to be more investment in this kind of ‘pure science’, not less.

    Anybody who thinks scientific research should be targeted toward new technologies and products rather than “curiosity driven” needs to read up on the history of radio, one of the more mind-bogglingly useful inventions in history. It essentially started with some guys messing around with magnets, while others worked out the equations behind the vibrating violin string. I doubt any crash program to develop wireless communication begun in, say, the mid 1800’s would have known where to start.

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