Why Scientists Need to Stop Being People Pleasers

A beef burger created by stem cells harvested from a living cow is held for a photograph by Mark Post, a Dutch scientist, fol
A beef burger created by stem cells harvested from a living cow is held for a photograph by Mark Post, a Dutch scientist, following a Bloomberg Television interview in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013. The 5-ounce burger, which cost more than 250,000 euros ($332,000) to produce, was developed by Post of Maastricht University with funding from Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

"Supply and demand": It's a commonly used term that is so familiar that we don't even think about it. We all have an idea about what it means. If demand outstrips supply, the price of the thing that is in demand goes up, because lots of people want it. It's a very simple economic argument, and encouragingly intuitive. No wonder we all feel so comfortable with it.

But the problem for me is that my peer group -- professional scientists -- has internalized the concept so much that it has left us blinkered. It isn't that we don't understand the idea; it's that we no longer bother to think about it. Even more worryingly, the same is true of policy makers, governments and consumers. And by doing so, we have set ourselves up for a situation where we will solve one difficulty but create even bigger ones as we go along.

It's partly because most scientists like to solve problems. That makes us very susceptible to anyone who asks us to come up with a solution to a technical challenge. Even worse, we love scientifically and technologically glamourous problems. And as a consequence, we and our paymasters/paymistresses (that's you, dear taxpaying citizen) are making decisions that I can only categorize as "really very stupid."

We can't feed the world's growing population: That's what we hear all the time. But don't panic, we're told, because the scientists are working on the problem for us. We're even making progress. Recently, the development of meat that was grown in a culture dish in a laboratory was hailed as a great breakthrough. Admittedly, the lab burger was so expensive that it made Kobe beef seem like a cheap cut, but it's a start. We'll be saved. There has also been a lot of coverage in the media of intensive farming of insects. Hooray for the geeks, rescuing us from imminent starvation once again.

Except of course it's all ridiculous. We can easily feed the world's population, even as it continues to increase in number. What we can't do is feed everyone a Western diet, nor should we be aiming to. It's killing millions of people, and killing them slowly, driving health services into bankruptcy.

Because of this, there is a desperate need for new drugs that can combat obesity and its medical consequences. But weight-loss drugs have consistently failed to make more than a 5- to 10-percent difference in an individual's weight, and for the morbidly obese this may have little real impact. There isn't much clinical improvement to be gained by dropping your weight from 300 pounds to a mere 270. Type-2 diabetes is rampaging through Western populations like a particularly tubby apocalyptic horseman. Creating pharmaceuticals with an acceptable safety profile that can tackle this issue has broken the hearts of many a drug developer.

What we need is to quit trying to fix the supply side of food in the West, and increasingly in all those other countries like South Africa that have switched to eating themselves into early but rather large graves. It's the demand side that needs sorting out: fruit, vegetables and grains as the basics, with animal proteins as the exceptional item. You'll tell me that people won't be willing to go for that, but I'm not convinced. We live in a world where insects are being put forward as a viable protein source. Can it really be harder to convince people to eat chickpeas, lentils or mycoprotein than it will be to encourage them to chow down on cockroaches, locusts or mealworms?

To reverse the obesity and food disaster that is engulfing the planet, governments need to work together and be prepared to plan for the long term. It's tough to do this for all sorts of reasons. The pseudo-libertarian obsession with not interfering with an individual's right to make incredibly dumb decisions -- no matter the deleterious effects for themselves, their families and society in general -- doesn't help. It's also always tempting for governments to favor work where they can measure the outcomes quickly and easily. It's simple to measure how many tons of insects are sold as food, and the financial costs or savings from doing so. It's much harder to monitor preventative health, educational and social interventions that may take 20 years to mature.

But as scientists we could and should do a lot more to challenge our funders and policy makers when we are asked to solve a supply-side issue. Surely we have a responsibility to point out, very publicly, that in many cases we are being asked to come up with solutions that we know will be limited in their impact and expensive to develop. We should be highlighting the stupidity and non-sustainability of excessive demand.

We also have to learn to look at ourselves and wonder why as scientists and citizens we are so seduced by glamour. Why is building a supersonic car more exciting than creating a vehicle that can get over 100 miles to the gallon? Why is the idea of sending a few people to Mars more thrilling than ensuring that all inhabitants of Earth can access toilets? Steve Jobs is adored, yet almost no one has heard of Nevin Scrimshaw, whose work on nutrition affected millions of lives. Why does growing a hunk of pretend beef in a Petri dish have more appeal than solving the technically far less challenging problems of food wastage that bedevil many distribution networks and lead to hunger and ultimately environmental catastrophe?

I'm not suggesting that every scientist should be working on research with direct impact. I am a huge fan of innovative research, which is carried out simply because the question it's addressing is fascinating. Good scientists change what we know, but great scientists change how we think. Great science is one of the glories of our cultural history.

But I am not a great scientist; I am a good one. And the same is true of most professional geeks, if we are honest about ourselves. So, when faced with a request to fix a supply issue, don't we have at least some responsibility to insist that we also look critically at the demand? Surely that is the minimum we should be doing as good citizens.