Economic Stimulation, Biomedical Response

Political leaders in Washington D.C. are currently at odds over the shape of an economic stimulus to get the U.S. economy back on its feet. Republicans want a stimulus package that includes sizeable tax rebates to corporations, arguing that this leads to job creation. Democrats want a stimulus package that includes sizeable benefits for unemployed people and for lower- and middle-income taxpayers, arguing for compassion. We see a way to construct an economic stimulus package that achieves both goals: a massive infusion of funds into the biomedical industry coupled with government programs to develop cures and treatments for serious diseases and medical conditions.

Let’s count the benefits of such a stimulus. First the biosciences and medical device industry could create just as many jobs with the tens of billions of new dollars the government has infused into the airline and aerospace industries. Plus, money directed to research in areas such as neural prostheses development would undoubtedly produce technology spinoffs for other fields in much the same way that NASA funding has over the last several decades.

Most important, the money we spend on medical research and product development would address a pressing national need: adequate healthcare, including access to new treatments for millions of uninsured people in the U.S. And as an added bonus, much of the money we devote to medical research programs will come back to us in terms of savings in healthcare costs, lost productivity, caregiving services, and other expenses associated with people with disabilities.

Here’s some examples of how the neurotechnology industry could play a role in economic stimulation in a cost effective and productive way. A $5 billion, Manhattan-project-style program to develop a walking prosthesis would not only put many engineers, healthcare workers, and former dot-commers back to work, it would more than likely produce a viable solution to the many complex engineering and control problems currently confronting researchers in functional electrical stimulation within a few years. In the process, the program would create electronics and engineering subcontractors who would build electrodes, sensors, control systems, and implantable power sources that would benefit many other industries. And thousands of people currently suffering from paralysis, stroke, and other neurological disorders would be potentially freed from their wheelchairs and the attendant costs associated with their disabilities.

A similar scenario could be envisioned for constructing a visual prosthesis that would restore at least some level of visual ability to blind and visually impaired people. In the process of building a cortical or retinal implant (or both), neural engineers would undoubtedly produce spinoff technology and basic science that could benefit robotic vision systems, information processing devices, and the consumer electronics ­industry.

Some might argue that this is too much money for the government to spend and that these programs should be pursued by the private sector. But if we truly care about disabled people in this country (and the billions of dollars we have spent to implement the Americans with Disabilities legislation—alas, not much of that on medical research—suggests that we do), initiatives like this would not be considered welfare programs, but economic stimulus and productivity enhancement.

James Cavuoto
Editor and Publisher



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