The Problem is the Science

The University has been the engine of basic science in the US and abroad for a long time. Any hand-wringing in recent years over its imminent obsolescence was borne of advances in remote learning and new found capacities to exponentially scale single instructors to reach tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of students across the globe. How, in this brave-ish new world, would matriculant tuition accruing to a handful of instructional specialists/celebrities continue to subsidize the scientific mission?

If the arrival of YouTube and Khan Academy gave credence to the academic apocalypse theory, then the coronavirus pandemic and the global adoption of Zoom instruction would surely make a reality of it. I will admit, for the first time in my career, I’m seeing the cracks in the edifice of the academy. And, yes, it was the pandemic that made them more prominent to me.

But its not on the educational side of our dual mission. It’s the science.

Dr. Katalin Kariko is very likely to win a Nobel prize for her immense contributions to our understanding of messenger RNA (mRNA) and how it can be manipulated to create an entirely new class of vaccines that, it is not hyperbole to say, stand to offer a global shift in health. The prospect is there for not just an HIV vaccine, or a broad-spectrum influenza vaccine, or a malaria vaccine, but the broad mitigation of viruses as a burden on humanity.

Dr. Kariko has been pursuing her scientific mission with a single-mindedness that jumps off the page in everything that has been written about her. What also jumps off the page, at least to those of use who have been trying make a career in academic research, is the university system that has worked diligently for decades to push Dr. Kariko, and her scientific mission, out of the academy. At every stage of the hiring, retention, and grant application process, Dr. Kariko’s research has been bludgeoned with not so much criticism or doubt, but what seems more like horrifying indifference. Grant reviewers saw little value, her colleagues noted that she lacked finesse in writing grant applications, and the academic institutions that employed her saw little value in employing someone, even for less than $60k a year in salary, that was unable to consistently bring in large grants (sidenote: her husband often estimated her effective wage to be roughly a dollar an hour: from the university’s point of view, it wasn’t the expense she represented on the balance sheet, it was the opportunity cost of the grants she wasn’t winning that someone else in her slot would).

This is a problem.

To be clear, this indifference is far more damning than any sort of broad disagreement would have been. The nature of science is such that most advances are incremental, but every now and then there are the rare revolutionary upheavals, where something we thought we absolutely knew for sure turns out to be completely wrong. That scientific mavericks that push such theories, most of which are completely wrong, meet resistance is natural (and probably optimal). But indifference is a problem, because indifference does more to reveal the underlying incentives propelling researchers. Universities were indifferent to her research because it wasn’t generating grant money, and that is the job she was hired to do.

Patents are great. Prestigious awards are welcome. Published papers are not entirely a waste of your time. But make no mistake, if you don’t successfully apply for grants, your days in academic science are numbered. I spent three years as an oddly appointed economist in arguably the greatest medical school of the last decade. I got to hang around brilliant physicians who spent a lot of their time every week actually (not figuratively or indirectly) saving lives. I also witnessed dedicated researchers break down into tears upon receiving the news that their grant application had been denied, which meant their contract with the university would not be renewed and their research career effectively terminated. I saw how little grant application aptitude correlated with talent or passion. I saw people thrive in system while others failed, with little in the way of scientific aptitude to distinguish them.

The most practical advice I was privy to was this: work in someone’s lab, pursue your project in parallel with their resources. Once you have an advance that would be worthy of a grant application, write up the application for a project you‘ve already completed. List your previous PI as a collaborator, promise exactly the results you already have, describe your budget, schedule, and proposed outputs in shocking detail, and then radically oversell the importance of the discovery. Once you win the grant, use that money to pursue your next project while writing up the outcome of your previous one. Once you have results, apply for yet another retrospective funding grant, and continue to daisy chain that until you win a massive grant, a coveted NIH R-1 perhaps, within which you can bundle a series of projects, hiring as many post-docs and early researchers as you can. You will then manage this team who will execute your research while hopefully starting their own retrospective grant application daisy chains. Is this a common strategy? I don’t know – it seems odd that the dates of human subjects testing could be obscured. But the point was made to me – this isn’t about science, this is a career life-or-death game where only the 20% of applicants are funded.

To be honest, I don’t care that people are gaming funding institutions. And, to be clear, “playing the game” is part of any career, no matter how idealistic you want to be. Academic research science is in deep, deep trouble, however, if grant application gamesmanship dominates scientific ingenuity in the talent acquisition and retention strategies of major universities. It means we’re no longer scientists, we’re rent-seekers. We’re the person in the village best at memorizing Mao’s Little Red Book: smart, talented, but in the end wasted. Or, much worse, we’re just poseurs.

Piecing together what I’ve read in articles and her Wikipedia entry, after Penn demoted her to adjunct status, Dr. Kakri found a home at BioNTech in 2013, where they and other biotech firms saw tremendous value in her work, yada yada yada, her research with Draw Weissman saved millions of lives going forward and maybe just the whole damn world.

Two takeaways:

  1. If Penn, after demoting her to being an adjunct, tries to claim her and her work as their own we riot.
  2. What is the marginal value of university research if all we’re producing is grant applications?

Part of the blame, of course, has to be placed at the door of the NIH and NSF grant application review process. But how much longer are they going to matter either?

  1. 2021 NSF Budget: $8.5 Billion
  2. 2021 NIH Budget: $43 Billion
  3. Tesla Market Cap: $650 Billion
  4. Elon Musk net worth: $167 Billion

The whole point of the NSF, NIH, and the academic research project is the production of the public good that is basic science. Absent private profit incentives, they should be able to pursue the big picture project that are too broad in application for private companies and the high risk-high reward projects that are or venture too risky even for venture capital.

The advantages of government agencies, however, are limited if they are overwhelmingly surpassed in scale by private market science. Even if 99% of firms can’t overcome the public goods problem, the 1% (ironically within public economics what would be referred to as “privileged groups”) of firms that stand to profit from advancing basic science have the scale to execute such ambitions. More importantly, however, they may also have better incentives. Yes, they are greedily trying to make a profit off of their innovations, but at least the innovation remains their goal.

I’m not worried about the value of university professors as educators. It turns out that education doesn’t scale as well as we thought. That there is tremendous value to be in a room together when you’re trying to pass on explicit, complex, and tacit knowledge. Nor am I worried in the slightest about capital-S Science. There is a bright future for any and every institution producing science, even the most basic, broadest science that no private company or patent strategy could ever exclude others from benefiting from. But, I’m afraid, there is no future for the production of grant applications or the institutions that pursue them at the expense of brilliant minds trying to solve our most important puzzles.

On Cylindrical Revolutions

The three technological innovations new to my life in the last year with the greatest impact are:

  1. Pfizer mRNA vaccines (price = $19.50, input costs: no less than $2 Billion, probably more)
  2. Amazon Basics Foam Roller (price $18.99, input costs: $4.44 per ounce of styrofoam)
  3. Zoom teleconferencing (price: $no idea what my school pays for it, input costs: $146 Million in venture funding)

The vaccine, of which I am scheduled to receive my first dose of tomorrow, will allow me to (sort-of) return to my pre-pandemic life. The introduction and regular use of a cylinder of high-density styrofoam has given me a better functioning left leg than I’ve enjoyed in 5 years. Zoom has arguably done more to maintain my the short-term integrity of my income (i.e. it’s allowed me to teach online effectively).

That is a very oddly shaped distribution of investments in high-utility yield innovations.

Biotechnology and medicine as a high investment, high risk, big payoff innovation game is well understood. Less known was whether or not a rapid “innovation on demand” vaccine project was an achievable outcome, no matter how much money was thrown at it. Turns out it was, and we’re left with what might be the most impressive feat of willed innovation since the moon landing. High-resolution teleconferencing technology, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of product we’ve grown accustomed to modern tech firms producing– the supply of such innovative products via the private capital-entrepreneurship pipeline is almost always less in question than the eventual demand it may or may not find in the marketplace.

But what of treating your muscles like sugar cookie dough? This is neither a sophisticated new composition of materials nor, at face value, a particularly complex theory of musculature. But, to my knowledge, this is not something even professional athletes were doing 7 years ago, yet now is both the bleeding edge of physical maintenance and such common knowledge that everyone who’s strained a muscle in the last 6 months currently has one of these cylinders leaning against a wall in their home. And, while I don’t mean to oversell it, the introduction of foam rolling has massively improved the quality of my life, not just when I try to play any sort of sport, but when I walk down a flight of stairs. It’s not crazy to suggest it may buy me an extra decade of easy use of my preferred mode of transportation, and while using my natural knees at that.

Investment in innovation is an interesting thing – there appears to be significant returns to scale at the micro, meso, and macro levels. Firms flush with capital can focus teams on single problems, fill them with talent, and grant them the keys to every piece of equipment deemed to hold even the slightest possibility of aid en route to an end product. There are simply innovative outcomes on the horizon for the Pfizers of the world that will never be available to scrappy new start-ups. At the same time, we can see the network-driven returns to scale in markets, a la Silicon Valley or Hollywood, that only begin to appear when a critical mass of agents all find themselves drawn to the bubbling creative soups that appears in the diners, salons, and coffee shops of whatever place has become the place.

But there are scale returns at the most macro of macro levels as well, and that is where we get miraculous cylinders of foam, as well as wheels on suitcases and the polymerase chain reaction. People are many things. Occupiers of space. Emitters of carbon dioxide. Consumers of fried dough. Sometimes while doing all three they also come up with ideas.

Humans as idea machines lies at the core of Michael Kremer’s theory of economic growth, and it is perhaps my favorite idea within economics in the last 40 years. Simply put, more people leads to more ideas. Population growth is not just a product of innovation, it is a source of it. Every individual is a lottery ticket that we hope pays off with a world changing eureka moment that the rest of us can benefit from and build on for all time going forward. More people, more lottery tickets.

Those organic globules of cognitive betting slips coalesce into the long tail of innovation return on investment. We take the brightest minds, throwing them and piles of cash at our biggest problems, hoping that for the closest thing to a assured payoff. But it’s within the billions of people, and their billions of bad ideas that sometimes aren’t, within which we get countless miracles that change our lives for the better bit by bit, one smoothened middle-aged stride at a time.

The Future of the World’s Tiniest Billboards

Ben Lange, a business student at Samford, writes:

In January of this year, Apple made a big announcement. It wasn’t about a new iPhone. Apple announced that it will soon release an update to their software that allows users to choose whether they give permissions to apps such as Facebook to track their browsing history on other companies’ apps and websites.(WSJ) This has implications for data usage and availability in advertising. As technology has advanced, regulations surrounding exactly what a company is allowed to do with your data has  stayed relatively stagnant, especially for smartphones. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter are allowed to monitor your searches not only on their apps, but also on your phone browser and other apps.

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New Dead Sea Cave Finds: Scrolls, 10,500-year Old Basket, Lice Comb, etc.

The original 1947-48 finds of scrolls in caves near the Dead Sea were a huge sensation. Preserved by the aridity of that region in the southwestern part of Israel, these scrolls dated back to around 100 B.C.-100 A.D.  They included Hebrew texts of much of the Old Testament, which were about a thousand years older than previously known Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts. There were also other writings peculiar to the Jewish community that lived near those caves, which gave new insights into the religious and social currents of that day.

The last of those manuscript finds by scholars was in 1961. Since then, there has been only trickle of artifacts from looters who have dug up items to sell, but with no proper historical context. In the last few years, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has mounted an exhaustive survey of every nook, cranny, and hole in that Judean Desert area, in order to forestall further loss of ancient artifacts. The IAA has now announced some finds from that survey. They include further Bible texts (in Greek), the oldest known woven basket (10,500 years old), and a 6,000 year old mummified skeleton of a child, covered with a cloth. The searchers also found arrow and spear tips, coins, sandals and even lice combs, all from the time of the Bar Kochba revolt (133-135 A.D.).

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Power Drill Versus Python 3.9

I wrote this Complaint on Wednesday:

Consider the power drill. I learned how to use one when I was a child. I have one today that I occasionally bring out for home repair projects. It works just the way it did when I was 8 years old, and I expect nothing to change. There is something nice about tools that function the way they worked the last time you pulled them out of the basement.

Consider programming a web app. Two years ago, I created a web app that I will refer to as Buchanan2. This week I wanted to create a new web app, called Buchanan3. I thought, if I’m lucky, I can use Buchanan2 code as a scaffold upon which to build Buchanan3 in a matter of hours.

To build Buchanan2, I used ToolA and ToolB and Python-based coding. When I opened up ToolA, I got a message that Old ToolA would be deleting next month, so I better upgrade to New ToolA. Ok. I upgraded, hoping it wouldn’t break Buchanan2. Then I opened up ToolB, and it was worse in the sense that more had changed. Also, Buchanan2 had been build using Old Python. New ToolA will not tolerate Old Python. I must figure out how to upgrade to New Python. I fear that Buchanan2 will break if I make all these changes.

While navigating all the changes and upgrades, I fight to stay on the free tier of ToolB, since I already pay for ToolA.

I spent hours searching through documentation. Maybe I could have worked faster. The flesh rebels against this labyrinth, as you would flee a room when the fire alarm sounds. Suddenly, I was on Twitter, and then I was in the kitchen getting snacks.

These situations make me very frustrated, but not hopeless. I have faith that if I bang my head against the desk enough times, and read one more message board reply, that Buchanan3 will work. It has to work. It will work, eventually. I hate New Python, and New ToolB, and anyone who would force me to learn new things all over again. Yet, in this fashion, I somehow got Buchanan2 to work, years ago.

I will keep at it, as a reluctant irritable self-taught programmer.

Today is Sunday. Since writing that, I have progressed and I feel much better. One thing that helped was getting on the lowest paid tier of Tool B and writing an email directly to the creator of Tool B. He wrote back quickly and helped me see my user error. If I’m lucky, Buchanan3 will be working within 2 weeks.

This situation reminds of research by David Deming and Kadeem Noray of Harvard. They find that recent STEM graduates make more money than their peers who picked softer subjects to study in college. Demin and Noray suggest that technical skills become obsolete in a matter of years and thus the wage premium for studying STEM in college declines over the first decade of working life.

My experience is just one anecdote, but there is no way that my college education a decade ago could have exactly prepared me for New Python, New ToolA and New ToolB. Those tools didn’t exist back then.

Cryptocurrencies, 1: What Exactly Is Bitcoin?

Everybody knows that Bitcoin is a “digital currency”. But what does that really mean, and what is Bitcoin really good for? Who developed it? Turns out, oddly, that we don’t actually know. Can you buy a pizza with it? Turns out that perhaps the most famous pizza purchase of all time was made with Bitcoin.

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The Massive SolarWinds Hack: A Work of Art

With all the uproar around the election in December, the news of the SolarWinds data breach did not get the attention it deserved. Some well-resourced foreign organization, almost certainly in Russia, succeeded in infiltrating the data systems of an astounding 18,000 or more U.S. organizations. These included major federal agencies such as the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the Treasury, and other big targets like Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, and Deloitte, and organizations like the California Department of State Hospitals, and Kent State University. Security watchdogs run out of adjectives (“11 out of 10”) in characterizing the magnitude of this hack.

At the same time, security experts cannot help admiring the sheer artistry of this exploit. Hackers themselves often view their codes as a work of art. According to one cybersecurity expert, “Programmers and hackers like to sign their work like artists…So they sign that code in various ways. Often, they’ll leave their initials or they’ll try to be cute and put some sort of cryptic message.” So how was this hack accomplished?

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Going back to the gym?

Who doesn’t want to be stronger? You can get on the floor and do 5 pushups right now. Did you do it? Probably not. (If you did, great work.) For most people, nothing is stopping you from getting strong, except yourself.

I just keep sitting around. Going to a gym and meeting with an instructor in person used to be a way around this problem. This takes our human foibles and makes them work to our advantage. The sunk cost fallacy can work for us.

If you bought a stock and it’s a loser, you should sell! Too many people keep holding and go down with the ship.

However, knowing themselves, many people also go to the gym and sign up for a class. Not wanting to walk away from their investment, they actually do the classes.

The WSJ reports that many gyms are closing after Covid-19 forced the customers out. The article describes the machines people have brought into their homes to replace gyms. The Peloton is a signature of the year 2020. The new trend brings a live human trainer into the process of exercising alone at home.

The new machines can collect data on the user. This data is transmitted to instructors and maybe even friends. Now, from the comfort of your own home, you can “sign up for a class” again.

Had Covid struck in 1980, people might have bought fitness machines for their basements and they might even have bought a VHS to pop in and exercise with. But they would have been missing the link to a human who knows where they are supposed to be, which apparently provides more motivation.

The market has loved Peloton and smart money seems to think it will continue to do well, even with a vaccine already rolling out.

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The Sound of Silence

I became aware of SlateStarCodex during the online kerfuffle over the popular blogger, Scott, getting his real name and professional identity exposed by the NYT. He’s written a new post about the whole event. He is a victim of sorts, but he doesn’t ask for more sympathy than he deserves. His story is an interesting case study concerning free speech and the internet.

See here the consequences of becoming a known figure in 2020. Quotes from Scott:

The New York Times thought so. Some people kept me abreast of their private discussions (in Soviet America, newspaper’s discussions get leaked to you!) and their reporters had spirited internal debates about whether I really needed anonymity. Sure, I’d gotten some death threats, but everyone gets death threats on the Internet, and I’d provided no proof mine were credible. Sure, I might get SWATted, but realistically that’s a really scary fifteen seconds before the cops apologize and go away. Sure, my job was at risk, but I was a well-off person and could probably get another.

So, you know, death or abuse and unemployment is all. Scott recognizes that some people have it worse. He used his situation to discuss the whole issue of anonymity. Why do people want anonymity to discuss their ideas? Scott brings us some data:

And: a recent poll found that 62% of people feel afraid to express their political beliefs. This isn’t just conservatives – it’s also moderates (64%), liberals (52%) and even many strong liberals (42%). … And the kicker is that these numbers are up almost ten percentage points from the last poll three years ago

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