I would guess that, at this point, I’ve worked with people from every region of the planet except Greenland and Antarctica. That’s how it is in drug research, and how it is in science in general. The problems and questions we’re working on are bigger than any one nationality; we’re tackling these things as a species.
Which is why it’s disquieting to see this sort of thing. That article reports that the (quite nationalist) government in Hungary is causing trouble for universities there, specifically the Central European University, accusing it and some of its faculty members of being in the pay of opponents of the government. It’s especially sad to see the national science funding agency participate in such actions. Hungarian scientists were a profound influence on the 20th century; the country produced a run of mathematicians, physicists, biologists, and chemists that had colleagues at Los Alamos joking that they must be Martians in disguise. But they didn’t get to that point by trying to do only Pure Hungarian Research, because there’s no such thing.
No more than there is Pure American, Pure German, or Pure Chinese Research.A look at what Germany did to its own scientific establishment under the National Socialist government should be all that’s needed as an argument, but apparently not. These things are dangerous fantasies, because talent comes from everywhere (and it often doesn’t conform to any given government’s ideology, either). I have a strong feeling that the current Hungarian government would be denouncing John von Neumann as a secret agent of George Soros were he or his like alive today. And they’re doing their best to make sure that the country never produces another such figure, which is a loss for the human race.
Here’s another example of nationalism at work, this time in drug research. The Chinese government is apparently planning to drop requirements for safety and efficacy testing of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) therapies. Xi Jinping himself is a big advocate, and what more do you need? Students who want to become TCM practitioners no longer need to pass the national medical exam to open their practices. Not only are these preparations getting easy regulatory treatment – the government is making it harder and harder for anyone to express any contrary opinions about them:
With strong government support for the alternative medicines industry, Chinese censors have been quick to remove posts from the Internet that question its efficacy. On 23 October, an article on a medical news site that called for closer attention to the risks of aristolochic acid was removed from social media site WeChat. The story had been viewed more than 700,000 times in three days.
Debate over TCMs has been silenced before in China. Last year, a Beijing think tank — the Development Research Center of the State Council — proposed banning the practice of extracting Asiatic black bear bile, another common ingredient in TCMs. The think tank’s report questioned the remedy’s efficacy and suggested using synthetic alternatives. It was removed from the think tank’s website after the Chinese Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which supports the development of TCM, called it biased and demanded an apology.
You can go to jail for criticizing this stuff. Now, I think the way that the US regulates (or doesn’t regulate) “dietary supplements” is a disgrace, but this is insanely worse. China has a great many excellent scientists, in a great many fields, and in drug research in particular they’re working on joining the short list of countries who have their own research-based drug industry that can produce new therapies to help patients around the world. But this effort will not be aided by making it easier for the black bear bile industry. I leave aside for another time discussion of how some of these “remedies” are driving animals around the world to extinction, but that’s just another argument for actually seeing if any of these things work (or even cause actual harm instead), and taking them off the market if they don’t. But the Chinese government has made the cynical calculation that promoting this stuff will pay off politically.
And you know what? There’s a connection between these two examples. Guess what the Hungarian government is interested in promoting? Traditional Chinese medicine:
Government spokespeople declined to answer specific questions about CEU, but did address another flash point: the country’s growing embrace of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). On 16 April, Hungary’s University of Szeged signed an agreement with the Shaanxi University of Chinese Medicine in Xianyang, China, to bring TCM researchers, medical experts, and lecturers to teach in the region. The University of Pécs in Hungary has had a similar arrangement since 2015.
Last year, the Hungarian government also announced plans to allocate about €4.5 million ($5.3 million) to build a new institute with a whole floor dedicated to TCM at Semmelweis University, one of the most prestigious medical schools in Hungary. The government says it wants to bridge the gap between Western medicine and Eastern alternatives to improve Hungarian health care, and also strengthen the economic, political, and cultural ties between Hungary and China.
I would guess that the most important word in that last sentence is “economic”. It’s pretty strange to see the Hungarian government deciding that the honor of Hungary has to be protected by embracing Chinese herbal remedies, but I’m sure that there are plenty of idiotic speeches laying this connection out in soul-eroding detail. No, this sort of thing is bad news. The reason science works is that we ask questions, investigate them to the best of our abilities, and build on the results that we get whether we like them or not. Wishful thinking doesn’t work so well. The physical world does what it does independent of anyone’s political agenda or nationalist sloganeering, and pretending otherwise is shameful and stupid.