Science, pharmaceuticals, finance, and... social good?

As an undergrad, I thought a lot about the importance of ethics discussions in an academic computer science context. Many computer scientists are driven by the joy of solving interesting problems, and I was worried that we sometimes lost sight of the wider impact of that work, and the place of computer scientists within a society.

Since then, I've spent a few months as an intern with a company on the edge of the pharmaceutical industry, and have developed an interest in modelling financial systems. At the same time, I've started a DPhil, looking mainly at models of evolution. As I've thought about what I'm going to end up doing with my life, I'm faced with a number of considerations - some more obvious, such as how much I'd earn and what my lifestyle would be, and others more complicated, including what the social impact would be of any of the career options open to me.

Big pharma: those greedy slimes who keep us alive

Let's start with the good. The pharmaceutical industry puts huge amounts of resources into developing cures, treatments, and disease prevention. In my opinion, this is clearly an industry that provides an awful lot of social good.

But what about the bad? This is a much messier tangled web of problems.

Pharmaceutical industry lobbying seems to lead to decisions by governments and doctors that put the financial interests of the industry over the health needs of patients. Multiple huge companies have settled for billions of US dollars - each, for pharmaceutical fraud, bringing themselves income through unethical practices such as encouraging doctors to prescribe their medications for treating conditions they were not tested/licensed for.

There are many other instances of illegal or obviously harmful practices. But what about the seemingly obviously good practices? A huge amount of money is put into treatment for cancers which kill a large number of elderly people. Since these cancers are so common, this research can have a very wide impact - but it can also ensure that a lot of treatments are bought from the companies that provide them. Many people's lives are extended by a handful of years, and the company makes a lot of money - so far, so good. But by putting so much effort into cancers which many of us get when we're elderly, are we diverting resources from diseases which relatively few people get, and which may affect people from a younger age and for a much longer period? The market is much smaller, but the impact on individuals who benefit from such research might be greater.

For me, the pharmaceutical industry does a lot of clear social good, a lot of clear social bad, and has a further big social impact that can't be so simply classified.

Finance: the industry that loses our homes and pays our pensions

The financial sector is enormously complicated, with a huge range of different entities performing different roles with different social consequences. I won't pretend to understand much of it, and rather talk about an idealised small hedge fund.

Big banks are notorious for creating economic instability and bubble-burst cycles. On the other hand, smaller investment funds can have the opposite effect - by exploiting the instability of markets, they can end up smoothing out that volatility (and making a profit in the process). This is possibly a small social good provided by a 'market making' hedge fund.

They are also not usually open to investment by wealthy individuals - their clients tend to be institutional investors: pension funds, state funds, union funds, etc. So a successful hedge fund might help keep your gran's heating on - maintaining and growing pension pots seems to be a social good (although I'd argue that the impact of a hedge fund's activity on this would be relatively small).

The social negatives of such a hedge fund's activities can be more opaque. They often exploit tax loopholes, such as by being registered abroad, depriving the country they operate in from tax revenue. Even more subtly, the actual objects of investment are abstracted for hedge funds and their clients. Trades happen increasingly automatically through computational decision procedures. Even when a person makes the decisions, the decision is based on the direction this number is going to take. The question of what, materially, the fund is investing in is irrelevant. So a fund might be investing in the arms industry, or in companies that are putting local farmers out of business, or whatever, and it wouldn't really come into consideration - there's a blind spot for social harm.

Overall I feel that the social impact of a hedge fund like this is relatively small. They are not the institutions which tend to have big impacts, like large banks. My impression is that there's a small social good and a small social bad involved.

Academia: cross my palm with silver and I'll answer your questions

Academia is impossible to talk about in broad terms because it's so diverse, but I will focus on my research and research I've come close to.

My research at the moment is mainly focussed on the evolution of gene families: introduction of new genes into the genome, and loss of genes from the genome. Does this have much social impact? I don't think so. Maybe it's a tiny piece of a huge puzzle which will contribute to some material medical advancement down the line, but it's so far removed from that point that it would be disingenuous to make that claim. Does it do social harm? Not really, I think, except that I receive public funding, so I am a bit of a drain on the public purse.

How much potential does my line of academia have for positive social impact? Maybe loads, but even academic research which aims to address hugely important social problems may end up having little or no positive social impact. I've seen talks by people who've spent entire careers working on the science of food, wanting to help tackle the huge global problem of hunger. But despite great scientific advancements, the lack of political implementation of that progress prevents any meaningful social impact. Pessimistically, you might again argue that the main social impact has been on the social purse.

Now, there are certainly academics whose work has a greatly positive social impact. Whether that's from development of new medicines, cultural objects, or through education, I'm sure that much social good is done in universities around the world. On the other hand, social bad is done there too - from development of technologies which ends up in weapons to justification of harmful social policy and beyond.

Within my own narrow area of science, I don't feel optimistic that I'll be able to make a significant social impact one way or another from within the ivory tower.

Why? Hope and opportunity

Many of the social effects described above result from the systems that these industries operate within. The capitalist pressures that push a pharmaceutical company to focus on one disease over another could also be argued to be the forces which enable the concentration of resources on medical research in the first place. A financial system which has just profit as its metric of success has little incentive to make investments which lead to social good and not social bad. And which academic projects get the green light are driven by all sorts of factors, of which social impact is often an easily overlooked one.

That said, all of these industries are created and maintained by people, within systems which are also created and maintained by people. It's possible for individuals to make ethical decisions within these industries and strive for more robust systems which encourage that.

Activities which seem intuitively to be socially good or bad may not be - a misguided attempt to help my do more harm than good, and an industry that gets a bad press might be doing vital work. Usually the picture is not unambiguously positive or negative. Asking these questions, having these conversations, and having social impact on the table as an explicit factor in all decision-making can help nudge us in the right direction.