To be a cutting-edge scientist, you can’t be a dummy. Now, it would seem, you can’t be a dope.
As many readers already know, the press has been paying close attention to the question of brain-enhancing chemicals among academic researchers — specifically, the ethics of “brain doping,” using compounds that were originally designed as treatment for neurological conditions in order to enhance performance: e.g., using the anti-narcolepsy drug Provigil (modafinil) to extend hours of wakefulness, or taking the anti-hyperactivity drug Adderall (amphetamine) to boost energy levels.
Here’s a quick summary of the most prominent articles from the recent mainstream press:
- The Blue Pill Makes you Smarter (NPR)
- Professor’s Little Helper (Nature)
- Brain-Boosting Drugs Hit the Faculty Lounge (Chronicle of Higher Education; n.b. the reader comments on the same page)
- Brain Enhancement Is Wrong, Right? (New York Times)
- Office Pill-Popping (Wired; this piece is not about academia but raises similar issues in the broader working world)
Now, in answer to these concerns, the NIH and its European equivalents have moved to block the use of brain-enhancing drugs among any individuals or institutions accepting federal money to fund their research. The effort is being spearheaded by a multinational agency, the World Anti-Brain Doping Agency (WABDA), which will “to help individual academic federations implement testing procedures in the fields of academic research. It also produces a list of prohibited substances that academics are not allowed to take and maintains the World Anti Brain-Doping Code.” The program will include random testing of all federally funded scientists, as described in this press release (from the WABDA website):
We note that the implementation will include testing of all NIH funded scientists both at the time that they receive finding as well at random times during the course of working on an NIH funded project. Testing will also be implemented at NIH funded or NIH hosted events such as conferences, workshops, and grant review panels.
I’m honestly a little torn about how to feel about this. One the one hand, I’m on the record opposing the use of pharmaceuticals to “edit out” human frailty (see the bit on “Paradise Engineering”). On the other hand, I believe that individuals have the right to do with their own bodies as they see fit, for good or ill, and I don’t think it’s the government’s place to attempt to control individual behavior at that level. There’s also a “slippery slope” argument: Today they’re coming for our off-label prescription drugs; tomorrow, will they ask us to turn in the tin of Trader Joe’s coffee in the break room fridge? Where does one draw the line?
Finally, on a more practical note: Athletes around the world — many of whom can barely read, much less understand the analytical chemistry underlying drug detection — have already been running circles around anti-doping agencies in sports. Does WABDA really think that the world’s biochemists won’t figure out how to beat a urine test?
UPDATE: April Fool, in case that wasn’t clear. Feel free to blame Jonathan.