What is the likelihood of seeing research vessels devoted to scientific research outside the bounds of national jurisdiction?

The idea of relocating for the sake of circumventing law, in particular the notion of establishing new nations in international waters, is an idea typically initiated with liberty in mind.

The Principality of Sealand, for instance, established in 1967, was founded with the intention of creating a space free from “oppressive laws and restrictions of existing nation states.” Similarly, the start-up group, The Seasteading Institute, aims at creating platforms for experimentation with new forms of governance, which Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel suggests may include systems with no welfare and fewer building codes.

A means to liberty, and more specifically, improved health and wellness, is implicated by the prospect of science and medicine operating in international waters. Medical tourism, the practice of seeking medical treatment outside one’s country of residence, increases the range of treatment options for patients, as well as drives down cost, and counteracts local systemic inefficiencies. Medical boats, in particular, operating altogether free of national regulation, further these ends, as well as open up the possibility for even more pertinent and flexible treatment.

For instance, the idea of ships offering in vitro fertilization, flying Denmark flags, has been proposed to provide UK residents with a service, locally illegal. In the U.S., major delays in safe and effective regenerative medical services are likely. Regenerex, a company offering regenerative stem cell therapies, faces a potential halt in operation by the FDA. The company has been in dispute with the FDA over whether or not stem cell therapies should be considered ‘drug’ therapies. If the FDA succeeds in this dispute, Regenerex would then be required, by law, to discontinue treatments until appropriate certification is in place, which could be ‘staggeringly expensive’ and take several years.

Biotech companies researching longevity also inconveniently face roadblocks from the FDA, which only approves drugs aimed at treating diseases in a specific, defined manner. Aging is not currently considered a disease by the FDA, which makes the delay of essential treatment virtually inevitable. The need for extensive reform in policy is a reality of a good deal of near and future medical services, and both businesses and patrons are incentivized by the unique opportunity of circumventing regulatory systems.

More disruptive, perhaps, is the prospect of doing brand new research on international waters, using freedom from legislative constraint to expedite scientific progress. Controversial and experimental projects hold great potential; yet misunderstandings around the nature of heath, research and progress continue to threaten the boundless potential of scientific inquiry.

Research vessels are already in place for the fulfillment of the above purpose. For example, vessels of data collecting oceanographers often incorporate biotech facilities, as they are designed for processing specimens in on-board labs; some are equipped for expeditions several months in duration. There is also a well-established industry in place for making the undertaking of research in off-land settings safe and convenient for scientists. Professional crew members typically service research vessel needs so that scientists are free to focus on tasks at hand. The R/V Thompson, for example, is designed for conducting “multidisciplinary research projects that involve large teams of scientists”. It can support up to 36 scientific personnel as well as 22 officers and crew, and two marine technicians. The STLS 1370 has a passenger capacity of 133, a crew capacity of 49 and is designed to withstand extreme conditions. Vessels of this nature currently range from 2 to 7 million U.S. Dollars.

Potential challenges to consider include the interference from government and from pirates. It is important for researchers to stay apprised of their local government’s legislation and disposition regarding their particular field of research. Pirates are also a relevant concern. In October of last year the oil research vessel Ocean Rig Poseidon was attacked by Somali pirates off the coast of Tanzania. Careful choice in docking as well as staffing in anticipation of piracy can minimize these risks.

Long-term predictions regarding socio-technological evolution identify increasing tension between innovative technology and regulatory systems. Already, the pace of technological evolution is measurably greater than that of visible socio-political evolution, and many are frustrated by the inability to effectively capitalize on the new tools available for improving human health. Regulatory agencies have already proved ill-equipped to accommodate novel research and practice shepherded-in by new technology. The most efficient path forward, then, perhaps, will entail a means of operating outside the bounds of the established system—And science boats may be a feasible option for this intrepid purpose.

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