Global fund for diseases needed: Nobel laureate

The Nation - Friday, March 18, 2005

A Nobel laureate yesterday urged the world community to set up a fund to find cures for diseases that might not otherwise attract the research dollars of giant pharmaceutical companies, because of the specter of low profits.

”There’s amoral issue about having accessible medicine,” said Prof. Jerome Friedman, in an exclusive interview with The Nation on Wednesday. “If people are dying that’s not a good reason [not to try harder]. A vaccine for malaria must be developed,” he said.

The latest Time magazine quoted World Health Organisation (WHO) figures suggesting there were 515 million cases of malaria globally in 2002 – and while that’s official, it is thought many cases in Southeast and South Asia went unreported. Friedman urged governments to donate money for research and set up an international health fund to tackle malaria, Aids and others.

Friedman, a professor at Michigan Institute of Technology (MIT), won a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1990. The expert on sub-atomic particles was in Bangkok for “Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace”, a forum organized by the International Peace Foundation. A staunch believer in science and technology, Friedman said that while religion was good for pondering the existential question of “why” – that is why we are here and the purpose of life – the question of “how” we evolved should be left to science.

”We have no idea what happened before the Big Bang, because that was before time existed. Science can not address that and social sciences cannot address that. [But] when religion gets into the ‘how’, that’s when we get into trouble,” he said. “Religion uses the idea of a revelation, [while] science is observation.”

He said world trade, international education, international travel and support for the United Nations were the four great hopes for a peaceful world. “The UN is very important and needs to be supported by everybody,” he said. “There’s nothing like dialogue, it’s better to exchange words than bullets.”

While offering a warning about how inaccurate predictions for the future can be, Friedman said nuclear fusion energy, which duplicates the sun’s energy production but in a controlled manner, could offer a limitless supply of energy, and that would be the greatest hope for new energy in 50 years’ time.

”The problem is every type of energy possesses its own risks,” he said, adding that nuclear fusion energy was still much cleaner than fossil fuels, which cause global warming. Regarding President George W. Bush’s refusal to sign the Kyoto protocol, Friedman said: “I am very sad that the US has not signed that accord…[the decision] reflects a certain point of view in the US, [but] not everybody’s point of view”.