Biomedical Research: A Service or a Commodity?

Carla Gibbs, MSI

Biomedical Research contributes to a large portion of the United States health care services in the form of medical products, pharmaceuticals and other innovations[1]. The United States gross domestic profit largely favors the health care industry in the United States by 17.1% in 2013[2]. In other words, the economic value placed on goods and services in the health care sector in the United States is of extreme importance and it doesn’t take long to figure out why.

If we look to our current and past milestones, the United States has made innumerate advances in the field of biomedical research in efforts to prolong lives and alleviate suffering from diseases[3]. Including contributions from African Americans right here at Meharry Medical College, from Dr. James Hildreth and his research team developing potential creams to block HIV infection to an unsung hero of the North Nashville community, Dr. Matthew Walker Sr, one of the first African American surgeons to become a fellow of the American College of Surgeons.

However, in some cases, research has been used as a vehicle for poor decisions including the devastating yet economic boosting institution of slavery in our country.

According to the book, Breathing Race into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics[4], by Lundy Braun, we can learn about the questionable history of the device used to measure lung capacity and gain insight on how its results falsely concluded that African Americans had lower lung capacity.  Subsequently, she reveals that researchers used that data as justification for the continuation of slavery on some southern plantations. Braun’s book states that” at the end of the Civil War, a large study of racial difference employing the spirometer appeared to confirm the finding, which was then applied to argue that slaves were unfit for freedom”.  Sadly, this is only one example of many, which show the impact that research can have on society.

According to one National Academy of Science Report featuring Insuring America’s Health: Principles and Recommendations, “Although America leads the world in spending on health care, it is the only wealthy, industrialized nation that does not ensure that all citizens have coverage”,[5].  The report, which provides numerous supports from research, focused on the lack of health care coverage in the U.S. and also provided noteworthy resolutions, goes on to state “providing coverage to everyone would almost certainly be greater than the additional cost of providing health care”.

Naturally, these issues of “costs versus care” are at the forefront of the impending political elections of all candidates, with resolutions spanning from repealing the affordable care act, increasing funding to NIH, to the ever-popular lowering costs of insurance coverage’s[6].

While spending continues to increase, may we pause for a moment to consider, what role does the budding biomedical researcher have in influencing this labyrinth of what we know as the American health care sector?

Well according to the NIH, whose current slogan is, “Turning Discovery Into Health,” there are a myriad of research topics that researchers can apply to have grant funding. And regardless of which researcher one converses with, there is no doubt a consensus that competition exists when applying for and obtaining funding. However, how can one decide where to begin in the process of developing an ethical project to meet the needs of our society? Well I first suggest determining a moral imperative by answering: Is biomedical research a service or a commodity?  By Merriam-Webster definition, a commodity is an economic good.  By contrast, a service is a contribution to the welfare of others.  With this in mind, I believe, we can bypass ever questioning if our work will benefit others.

In reality, we have more power to enact changes in society than we know, and it starts with that very first hypothesis we make.

I want to remind everyone that researchers are heavily governed and unable to make choices and decisions that may further their goals. As a result, if we are not utilizing the leaders in and around us by voicing our concerns, as the experts in scientific knowledge, then social norms of the past will continue to persist.

At Meharry Medical College our mission clearly states, we exist to improve the health and health care of minority and underserved communities. I urge our community to be reminded of this mission as we set out to accomplish our own personal goals within the realm of biomedical research.

[1] Nabel, Elizabeth G. 2009. “Linking biomedical research to health care.” Journal of Clinical Investigation. 119 (Oct) : 2858.

[2] Health expenditure, total (% of GDP). The World Bank (World Health Organization Global Health Expenditure)  Web. 1 Nov 2015.

[3] A Short History of the National Institutes of Health Web. Nov 1 2015.


Braun, Lundy. Breathing Race Into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2014.

[5]Insuring America’s Health: Principles and Recommendations”. National Academy of Sciences. 13 Jan 2004.

[6] Every Political Leader On Every Issue.  Web. 1 Nov 2015.


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