Sometimes, you find your eyes opened up by the strangest things.

A couple days ago, I found out that my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The news hit me like a freight train; I immediately began to think about all of the time I had spent with this wonderful woman and how that would probably never be the same again. Because Alzheimer’s is an incurable disease, I can be pretty sure that the next several years will be difficult, full of having to watch someone I love slowly retreat into a world of which I can only imagine.

All of this got me to thinking. Though I am aware that there isn’t much cause for hope right now, it’s not completely a lost cause. My grandmother is joining a clinical trial of a new drug, and while it’s likely that this isn’t going to be anything revolutionary, the truth can never really be known; there may be a cure right around the corner. If it weren’t for the miracle of medical breakthroughs through research, there would be no cure for polio, smallpox, measles, or influenza.

Which brings me to the greater topic at hand. The public at large claims that things like medical research and education are two of the most important things to its well being. I’m sure you’ve heard every politician talk about how important our youth is, and about how vital the educational system is to the future of our country and our world. And let’s face it: the public just eats that up. Everybody is concerned with education—during an election year. But when it actually comes time to vote for your district’s school budgets, all of a sudden that well of interest dries up. It never fails: nobody minds being political when it’s not their pocket that has to be dug into.

I find, not so surprisingly, that the same holds true for medical research. I have no doubts that if the same enthusiasm was put into researching diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer and HIV/AIDS, we would have seen far more impressive results by now. AIDS has been around for more than twenty years now, and we seem to be no closer to finding a cure than when we started. Let’s remember, folks, that this is a disease that has affected us more than any disease in history.

Because drug companies are private organizations whose main drive is, like any other private corporation, to drive up their profits, I have to ask myself how hard they’re really working for the cure of diseases like this. The amount of money spent on drugs like AZT and the other HIV cocktails is astronomical. The reason these drugs cost so much is that the research and development costs are so high, so the companies say. So I have to ask the question: how much more can a company make on the cost of a drug if their research and development phase lasts twice as long as it should? How long can they hold the prices up before they can no longer use “research and development” as a crutch for the high prices?

But above all, I have to ask if it’s really in a company’s best interest to find a cure for these diseases. After all, if they can make a ton of money by treating the so-called “incurable” diseases, why would they want to prevent that revenue from flowing in by releasing a drug that could cure the disease right out?

I’m obviously not saying that the drug manufacturers are deliberately trying to make more money by prolonging the suffering of their customers; such practices are so far below the decency of any human being that I couldn’t even imagine a company doing this. But as much as I approve of the idea of capitalism, I find myself questioning the true motivations behind companies like these. Wouldn’t we be far better off by subsidizing the costs of research and development by investing that which is of interest to all of us—the taxpayers’ monies—and would facilitate more rapid and driven motivation? The American government certainly could afford to earmark a not-so-small amount by taking some money away from other sources, like, I don’t know, the $87 billion reserved for rebuilding Iraq?

Or how about our over-inflated military spending budget? I once read in a teacher’s office a bumper sticker that said, “It will be a great day when our schools have all the teachers they need and the government will have to hold a bake sale to raise money for a fighter jet.” While I agree with the notion that it’s obviously absurd to think that way, it does raise an important point. After all, what’s the point of defending a country when the country has no valuable assets to defend? What are we if we can’t produce artists and philosophers, musicians and mathematicians? Or physicists? Doctors?

Maybe if we all start to think about what’s really important in our lives, we can start to focus on improving our way of life by doing what’s really possible, instead of by reinforcing a status quo. It’s a thought worth having.