HEA’s first talk of the semester promises to be a good one, in an area we haven’t covered much before: shaping the far future. In the footsteps of the Future of Humanity Institute, and Nick Beckstead‘s research on the altruistic importance of the far future, we present:
The Future of Life: a Cosmic Perspective
a talk by Professor Max Tegmark
Tuesday, March 4, 7 p.m.
Exploring how we humans have repeatedly underestimated not only the size of our cosmos (and hence our future opportunities), but also the power of our humans minds to understand it and develop technologies with the power to enrich or extinguish humanity.
Known as “Mad Max” for his unorthodox ideas and passion for adventure, his scientific interests range from precision cosmology to the ultimate nature of reality, all explored in his new popular book “Our Mathematical Universe”. He is an MIT physics professor with more than two hundred technical papers and has featured in dozens of science documentaries. His work with the SDSS collaboration on galaxy clustering shared the first prize in Science magazine’s “Breakthrough of the Year: 2003.”
My wonderful HLS colleague Matthew Stephenson has just launched the Global Anticorruption Blog (GAB). As it happens, his first two posts may be of interest to BOH readers, especially those may be of interest to readers interested in international aid for public health projects, of the sort supported by the Gates Foundation. The first post argues that the extent of corruption in these projects is much larger than the Gates Foundation and others acknowledge. The second post contends that one reason for lowballing of corruption estimates is political: these projects depend substantially on public funding, and political support for health aid may be undercut by candid assessments of the extent of the corruption and fraud problems. Both the posts and the blog are well worth a read.
By Deborah Cho
I would highly recommend reading the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s recent article An Rx for Surplus Meds featuring the Dispensary of Hope, a brilliant model of providing prescription medications to those who need but can’t afford them.
In a nutshell, the Dispensary of Hope, a not-for-profit enterprise, collects unused medication samples from participating physicians and pharmacies across the country and redistributes those medications to safety-net health centers. Those health centers can then prescribe these much-needed medications to patients who are unable to obtain them otherwise. Since many of those medications would likely sit on shelves until they had to be discarded if they were not donated, this is beneficial to both the physician practices that no longer have to worry about proper drug sample disposal and also to safety-net health centers and their patients.
More specifically, participating physician practices and pharmacies simply fill with medications the boxes that are shipped to them by the organization and then ship the box back to the organization’s headquarters. The organization’s staff and volunteers there do all the legwork necessary to properly inventory the drugs so that they can be distributed. This way, time and effort required on the parts of these physician and pharmacy groups is minimal (not to say that their contribution is minimal – the Stanford article states that $14 million of sample donations were expected for 2013). The organization thus provides a missing link, acting as an intermediary between the donors and the recipients to keep the supply constant and regular.
This is worth a read, and, in my opinion, absolutely right. The discussion is relevant to broader questions of identified v. statistical lives, as well as “choice architecture” questions about how charities ought to seek out donations. Take a look:
Full disclosure: Several years ago my family took advantage of a Make-A-Wish trip resulting from my younger brother’s leukemia. He is now a thriving adult and doing great, and the experience was incredible, especially for those families with children facing terminal diagnoses. But the fact remains that this really has to be seen as a “luxury” charity – and when faced with a stark side-by-side choice of where the dollars could be spent, Peter’s analysis nails it.
Today, there are two big stories that relate to the “institutional corruption” of medicine (aka conflicts of interests). For those who have been working long and hard on these issues, they are cause for hope. The needle does move.
First, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies, GlaxoSmithKline, has decided that it will stop paying doctors to promote their drugs. My prior work has shown that such payments are quite common (e.g., 61% of urologists and 57% of gastroenterologists taking money), and that they likely influence the prescribing decisions of the doctors who take such money. In recent months, Glaxo has made several such moves towards greater transparency and integrity, often as a result of threatened or actual criminal prosecutions. (See their newfound commitment to opening up their clinical trial data too.)
The NYT story quotes an industry consultant suggesting that the move to stop paying physicians is a result of the Affordable Care Act’s “sunshine” requirement that such payments will be disclosed, and that several other drugmakers are considering similar moves. I am a bit skeptical that the disclosure mandate had such an effect, since the disclosures were already required by Massachusetts and other states, and as part of the “corporate integrity agreements” that came of several federal prosecutions. My sense is that such disclosures are not likely to reach patients in a useable way, so its hard to understand how the transparency could really impose much of a disincentive on the companies. Yet, something has caused Glaxo to change course.
Second, the National Football League has decided to give the National Institute of Health $30 million to study brain injuries. The counterfactual is that the NFL could have kept the money, of course. But the more interesting alternative is that the NFL could have just spent the money itself, hand-picking the researchers and carefully specifying how the research should be performed, in order to buy the scientific conclusions that it preferred. This has been the classic strategy of industries facing litigation risk, from tobacco, to asbestos, and now the paper industry, whose law firm actually commissions scientific studies on its behalf. The NFL’s move instead proves that it is possible for a self-interested party to nonetheless fund independent, credible, gold-standard research, by using an intermediary, such as the NIH.
This is exactly the sort of reform that I have called for, as an alternative to the false dichotomy between public funding and private interest. For companies that have a bona fide interest in discovering and publicizing the scientific truth, a credible intermediary like the NIH can reassure consumers of scientific information that it is valid. Now, if only we can get big pharmaceutical companies to make the same move for their clinical trials and other scientific research studies. Perhaps the first-movers will be the most innovative companies who have bona fide products and are tired of them being lost in the cheap talk? If physicians making prescribing decisions continue to give greater credence towards NIH-funded research, such integrity could be rewarded.
EDIT: Corrected link to NFL story on NYT, and corrected amount from $100M to $30M. Also, disclaimer: I am not involved in this Petrie Flom Center collaboration with the NFL, and the views expressed here are entirely my own.
Harvard High Impact Philanthropy presents:
Evaluating Effective Charities with Elie Hassenfeld of GiveWell
How can you maximize the impact of your charitable giving? What distinguishes the most effective causes and organizations? Elie Hassenfeld, co-founder and co-Executive Director of GiveWell, will describe how his organization is revolutionizing charity evaluation with completely transparent, rigorous analysis. Q&A to follow.
8 pm, Tuesday, Nov. 12; Sever 102
Elie Hassenfeld graduated from Columbia in 2004 and co-founded GiveWell in mid-2007 where he currently serves as co-Executive Director. GiveWell finds outstanding charity and publishes the full details of its analysis to help donors decide where to give. The Boston Globe has called GiveWell “The gold standard for giving” and its research has attracted attention from Peter Singer and other media. GiveWell has tracked over $10 million in donations to its recommendations as a direct result of its research.
Harvard High Impact Philanthropy presents:
Peter Singer on Effective Altruism
Effective altruism is a new movement consisting of many individuals and several independent organizations, all focused on the deceptively simple idea that we should try to do as much good as we can. The existence of this movement raises many interesting questions, both practical and philosophical, which this talk will discuss.
Friday, November 8th; 4 – 5 PM, in Science Center D
RSVP to the event
Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the Princeton University Center for Human Values and Laureate Professor at the Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. He is well known for his philosophical work, as well as for his books – most recently including The Life You Can Save.
This event is co-sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, with support from the Oswald DeN. Cammann Fund, as well as Harvard’s Departments of Economics and Philosophy.
Prof. Singer will also speak on “Ethics and Animals: Where Are We Now?” at 12 PM in Austin 200 (Ames Courtroom), 1515 Massachusetts Ave.
Art Caplan has a new opinion piece at MSNBC.com discussing the ethical issues raised by heiress Huguette Clark’s sometimes enormous gifts to the medical workers who cared for her while she lived in a New York hospital for over 20 years — despite being in good health.
[…] Clark’s favorite private duty nurse, Hadassah Peri, received more than $31 million in gifts during 20 years of service, including enough money to buy five homes, jewelry and other luxuries. Clark gave lavishly to Peri’s husband and children, too.
Other caregivers also got gifts, although not in those amounts. Still others got nothing. Was it ethical for those who got gifts to accept them?
Clark’s personal staff members were not the only ones with an eye on her fortune. The hospital where she lived pushed hard to get Clark to make a substantial gift, using their development staff to try to pry a promise from her, the book reports.
In 2004, Dedman and Newell write, hospital officials threatened Clark with having to move from her beloved room if she did not make a contribution of $125 million to forestall the sale of the building.
So what is the ethical deal?
Read the full article here.
In Why the Rich Don’t Give to Charity, Ken Stern writes that with all the attention given to donations from wealthy people, “you would be forgiven for thinking that the story of charity in this country is a story of epic generosity on the part of the American rich. It is not.” Stern notes:
One of the most surprising, and perhaps confounding, facts of charity in America is that the people who can least afford to give are the ones who donate the greatest percentage of their income. In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donated 3.2 percent of their income. . . . [S]ome experts have speculated that the wealthy may be less generous—that the personal drive to accumulate wealth may be inconsistent with the idea of communal support.
Of course, Stern’s argument requires us to view generosity in subjective terms. Given that the 80th percentile in income in the U.S. is about 5 times that of the 20th percentile, the top 20% is surely donating far more dollars than the bottom 20%.
So what is the best way to measure generosity? It depends. If you are deciding whether to focus your fundraising efforts on the top quintile or the bottom quintile, you should probably focus objectively on dollars and choose the top quintile. Similarly, if you are choosing a career and want to maximize your charitable giving, you should focus on your ability to give dollars even if doing so reduces the fraction of your total income you will later give.