As a measure of gratitude, would even the Nobel Prize suffice for the scientist who could prevent the wrinkling of the human face?
The thought arises because this goal, so obviously was recently spared from long scientific neglect by a pact between the Estee Lauder cosmetic company and the Johns Hopkins Medical School dermatology department. With Lauder putting up an undisclosed sum for five years, the Hopkins skin scientists will carry out a fundamental scientific inquiry that translates to: why do we wrinkle as we age?
It's astonishing, given our youth-craving culture, that the question has received little serious scientific attention, regardless of the impression created by TV's white-coated cream-and-lotion pushers.
Similarly meriting note is another unusual item for grantland: the Seagram distilling company recently gave the Harvard Medical School $5.8 million for research that, in ordinary language, is directed at the biochemistry underlying why some people can toss 'em down without trouble while others can't. As with the skin project, this is serious scientific research, with the results to be made public in the standard scientific literature.
Now, the high command of American science, heading a profession mainly employed in inquiries on weapons, disease and energy, will probably scoff at these academic-industrial ties as fringe stuff in the advancement of knowledge. But what they're overlooking in their fixation with somber science is that it would be beneficial for both the general public and the eternally cash-hungry research enterprise if science would give serious attention to such bedrock human interests as hedonism and narcissism and penalty-free overindulgences. After a decade of science-based don'ts -- ranging from hotdogs to sunbathing -- the public would be grateful for some sure-fire scientific illuminations of how to do it and get away with it.
Opportunities for providing this service do abound, but, unfortunately, the governance of science and technology rarely embraces them. For example, the federal health establishment tinkered for a time with the sensible goal of a "safe" cigarette. But then the puritans took over, denounced this technically difficult but attainable objective as indecent and proceeded to close down the operation. Along the way, no one bothered to explain why the U.S. government refused to interest itself in what would be the happiest solution to the politically sensitive and personally painful tobacco problem: safe smoking.
The zealots say that's impossible, but with money and will, researchers have cracked tougher nuts. Meanwhile, the cigarette industry sees legal hazards in trying to make safe what it has foolishly denied is dangerous, and therefore is wary of showing interest in this kind of research. So it goes undone.
Like wrinkles, obesity is another problem that science chooses to neglect, though deciphering the fat mystery would be a landmark in the history of happiness. The result is that fat research is mainly left to the realm of pseudo-science, while the weight-control industry -- ranging from diet-drink makers to slimming camps -- thrives on the absence of basic scientific understanding of weight control. For all the vast literature that exists on this subject, it remains extraordinarily difficult, to the point of being impossible, for most people to achieve and maintain so little as a 5 percent weight changes.
The managers of the national scientific establishment like to argue that everything in their domain is just as it should be, except for a shortage of money, and they'd say that it would be a frivolous misuse of resources for the first team to take on problems linked to vanity and pleasure. Science's radical critics wouldn't like it either, since they want research turned toward the world's truly desperte needs. But both camps are a bit out of touch with reality: the status-quo emphasis on military research and high-technology medicine isn't producing much security or better health; and every inquiry into the billions spent on energy research concludes that the payoff has been sparse. Meanwhile, efforts to boost research related to the problems of needy nations have just taken another congressional drubbing. Thus, the political prospects are dim for redirecting our bloated research enterprise toward life-and-death needs.
Against that background, what's wrong with deliberately aiming research -- not all of it, but certainly a lot more than at present -- toward making people happy?