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Science messes up public policy

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The information explosion can give you whiplash. Just when we were worrying about the Social Security Trust fund going bust in 2029, scientists announced that a meteorite might hit earth in 2028, rescuing us from the need for reform. But no such luck. A second look at the computer data said there would be no collision.

Then policymakers churning their calculations discovered that the booming economy will add substantially to the Social Security trust fund putting off the crisis for two years. Isn't it nice to have a little more breathing room? If that wasn't good enough to cheer the aging baby boomers who are approaching retirement, they got additional uplifting news. Just as the boomers were dangerously close to facing the downside of aging, Pfizer Pharmaceutical introduced viagra, bringing them back up.But now scientists have thrown a wrench in our neat social and economic planning by announcing the possible discovery of a cure for cancer. A cure would add a number of years to the average lifespan, throwing Social Security planning back to the drawing board. It's enough to drive a bureaucratic actuarial to distraction. And what if there are cures for other major diseases that shorten longevity - heart disease and stroke?

An even greater looming disaster for planners is an extension of longevity itself. With all the ballyhoo about the great longevity revolution that has extended life from an average life expectancy of 50 years, as recently as 1900, to today's average of 76, we have never had a genuine breakthrough in life extension.

The longevity revolution has brought more people to the upper end of what historically has been the theoretical limit of about 120 years. But now researchers may be close to piercing the genetic aging code that could catapult life extension to science fiction levels. Poor social planners.

To make things worse, policy- makers are betting against science. A bad bet historically and a terrible one today. All evidence says that science is steamrolling ahead at an unprecedented pace. Computer and communications technology have put scientists throughout the world in instant collaboration producing a dizzying flood of discovery. The turnover of knowledge which previously occurred over generations now happens in years. Consider that biologists have announced that we are just entering the "golden age" of biology. If science made spectacular progress over the past 50 years without computer technology and "the golden age," we can hardly imagine the breathtaking discoveries that will unfold over the coming decades.

Yet for public policymakers it's business as usual: Trim here, add a little there, and spice things up a bit with a constant longevity factor based on the past. Their vision recalls the prophesy of Charles Holland Duell, Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office in 1899: "Everything that can be invented has been invented." His perspicacity was only equaled by the lookout on the Titanic: "All clear ahead."

Ironically, the government is a house divided against itself. We spend billions on scientific and medical research through the various institutes and agencies in a massive effort to cure diseases, improve health and increase life expectancy. At the same time, other government departments and pol-icymakers are "looking the other way" by desperately clinging to old models for projecting 50 years into the future in an effort to preserve the status quo. Charles Duell lives!