Yesterday I had an interesting debate about whether science is suffering from diminishing returns these days; i.e. that it costs more than it used to to get answers. On the face of it, this seems true; we spend billions on particle accelerators, space telescopes and medical research programmes. We never spent that amount of money before, so surely it must be harder to get answers now?

I disagreed. Firstly, the world is much richer than it used to be, and it can afford the vast sums of money we spend on both applied and pure research (it can afford even more, I think). You might blanch at hearing ten figure dollar amounts, but the proportion of time and energy we spend on research has not changed too much.

Secondly, people have the tendency to forget exactly how powerful the fruits of our research can be. I’d wager that most readers here have read about the mysterious Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, a deadly pneumonia-like disease that popped up a bit over a week ago and has been causing problems worldwide. Consider this; one week ago, we had no idea that the syndrome was; we didn’t know if it was a bacteria or a virus, if it was the flu or something else. Today, doctors have already identified that it is a virus, and which family it comes from.

This will help doctors to design a diagnostic test, procedures on how to alleviate symptoms and eventually a cure. In just over seven days, we have gone from discovering a syndrome that some believed could kill millions, to identifying it and developing a cure. It’s easy to forget how truly incredible that is. I don’t think we could have managed something like this even ten years ago, not at this speed.

Of course, part of the reason behind the speed is because of the World Health Organisation’s excellent efforts at co-ordinating 11 research centres worldwide, but again, that level of co-ordination has only been made possible due to advances in communications technology.

Today, we can identify completely unknown diseases in a week. In a decade or two, I fully expect that the time taken will be halved, at least, using DNA microarrays and protein sequencing tehcniques. This is what we get for the money we spend on our research – almost total mastery over dangerous pathogens.

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