Are Seasteads the Future of Scientific Research?

Nikki Olson recently wrote an intriguing post at the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies blog on the opportunities for medical research and experimentation aboard seasteads. Our ears perk up every time we hear the word “experiment,” and we’re always on the lookout for business models that are compatible with seasteading, so we found Olson’s post particularly interesting.

In the past, we have touted medical tourism as a potentially profitable seasteading opportunity, and Olson’s post further supports the idea. She explains how seasteading can open up attractive jurisdictional arbitrage opportunities for the suppliers of innovative medical procedures and research.

Specifically, Olson notes that ships in international waters are not generally subject to the regulations of nearby countries. Thus, doctors on ships in the open ocean can legally provide medical services, such as in-vitro fertilization, to citizens of countries in which the procedure is not approved. This means new arbitrage opportunities arise whenever a country bans a  treatment that can be performed aboard a ship or seastead.

Olson also highlights the regrettable case of Regenerative Sciences, Inc., which has been using a stem cell treatment called Regenexx to treat patients with chronic pain, and whose operations are currently being threatened by the Federal Drug Administration. FDA regulations require additional rounds of testing before approving “drug treatments.” Although Regenerative Sciences, Inc. claims its procedure does not involve drugs, the FDA has delayed implementation of the procedure. If the delays continue, an increasing number of patients who would have benefited from Regenexx treatment will suffer unnecessarily.

While it’s true that some regulations protect people from treatments that turn out to be harmful, bureaucracies like the FDA are often ill-equipped to strike a proper balance between what statisticians call type I and type II errors. A type I error occurs when a government agency or official withholds approval of a beneficial drug or treatment. A type II error occurs when a government official approves a treatment which later proves to be more harmful than beneficial. While both errors are regrettable, government officials have less incentive to avoid type I errors, since the absence of beneficial medicine is largely invisible to the public. Media outrage puts pressure on regulators to swiftly resolve type II errors, while type I errors persist for as long as a ban is in place.

Before long, we hope to enable firms like Regenerative Sciences, Inc. to continue their treatments in international waters, where FDA regulations do not apply. As with any seasteading activity, some additional risks would be incurred by patients seeking unapproved treatments–early adopters always bear greater costs during the initial stages of investment in new products. However, the benefits to individual patients could be large, as could the gains to science coming from increased experimentation.

We would like to see more discussion about the potential fusion of seasteading technology with scientific research, and we hope to facilitate their combination.


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