Once again, Janet Stemwedel reminds us why we keep professional philosophers around. On Monday, in response to cancer researcher Scott Kern’s moaning about how cancer researchers don’t work hard enough, I asked if science was a job or a calling? Janet framed the question far better than I did (and go read the whole thing–there’s lots of good stuff in there):
…if scientific researchers and the special skills they have are so very vital to providing for the needs of other members of society — vital enough that people like Kern feel it’s appropriate to harangue them for wanting any time out of the lab — doesn’t society owe it to its members to give researchers every resource they need for the task? Maybe even to create conditions in which everyone with the talent and skills to solve the scientific problems society wants solved can apply those skills and talents — and live a reasonably satisfying life while doing so?
Good question. And the answer (italics mine):
My hunch is that most cancer patients would actually be less likely than Kern to regard cancer researchers as of merely instrumental value. I’m inclined to think that someone fighting a potentially life-threatening disease would be reluctant to deny someone else the opportunity to spend time with loved ones or to savor an experience that makes life worth living. To the extent that cancer researchers do sacrifice some aspects of the rest of their life to make progress on their work, I reckon most cancer patients appreciate these sacrifices. If more is needed for cancer patients, it seems reasonable to place this burden on society as a whole — teeming with potential cancer patients and their relatives and friends — to enable more (and more effective) cancer research to go on without enslaving the people qualified to conduct it, or writing off their interests in their own human flourishing.
Then she gets mean (don’t fuck with the philosophers!):
Kern might spend some time talking with cancer patients about what they value in their lives — maybe even using this to help him extrapolate some of the things his fellow researchers might value in their lives — rather than just using them to prop up his appeal to pity.
Comrade PhysioProf also makes a good point:
Is every scientist who doesn’t study cancer failing to fulfill an obligation to cancer patients by having chosen to study something else?…Heart disease kills more people than cancer. Is every cancer researcher actually a horrible ethically bankrupt asshole for not being a heart disease researcher instead?
Clearly, the answer is that both cancer and heart disease researchers should stop what they’re doing and work on smoking cessation instead, since smoking kills even more people….
But to get back to the main point, if Kern is asking cancer researchers (and presumably other health-related researchers too) to make such sacrifices, then why isn’t everyone, not just the researchers, asked to do so? A lot of what’s done in the lab doesn’t require that much technical training–why aren’t more people in the lab helping (volunteers, of course)? Likewise, why aren’t people giving more money (or paying more in taxes) to support this research? Everybody mobilize.
Instead, Kern’s admonition is like asking a small fraction of the population to bear the burden of fighting two unpopular wars for a decade, while not giving them and their families the support and services they need.
That, of course, is a purely hypothetical scenario.
Janet’s absolutely right: if we need more cancer (or any other disease) research done, then allocate more resources, including human resources, to the problem. Don’t flog those who have already decided to combat the problem. They’re the solution, not the problem.
Update: Scicurious and Rebecca also weigh in.