From my email, a note about epidemiology

This is all from my correspondent, I won’t do any further indentation and I have removed some identifying information, here goes:

“First, some background on who I am.  After taking degrees in math and civil engineering at [very very good school], I studied infectious disease epidemiology at [another very, very good school] because I thought it would make for a fulfilling career.  However, I became disillusioned with the enterprise for three reasons:

  1. Data is limited and often inaccurate in the critical forecasting window, leading to very large confidence bands for predictions
  2. Unless the disease has been seen before, the underlying dynamics may be sufficiently vague to make your predictions totally useless if you do not correctly specify the model structure
  3. Modeling is secondary to the governmental response (e.g., effective contact tracing) and individual action (e.g., social distancing, wearing masks)

Now I work as a quantitative analyst for [very, very good firm], and I don’t regret leaving epidemiology behind.  Anyway, on to your questions…

What is an epidemiologist’s pay structure?

The vast majority of trained epidemiologists who would have the necessary knowledge to build models are employed in academia or the public sector; so their pay is generally average/below average for what you would expect in the private sector for the same quantitative skill set.  So, aside from reputational enhancement/degradation, there’s not much of an incentive to produce accurate epidemic forecasts – at least not in monetary terms.  Presumably there is better money to be made running clinical trials for drug companies.

On your question about hiring, I can’t say how meritocratic the labor market is for quantitative modelers.  I can say though that there is no central lodestar, like Navier-Stokes in fluid dynamics, that guides the modeling framework.  True, SIR, SEIR, and other compartmental models are widely used and accepted; however, the innovations attached to them can be numerous in a way that does not suggest parsimony.

How smart are epidemiologists?

The quantitative modelers are generally much smarter than the people performing contact tracing or qualitative epidemiology studies.  However, if I’m being completely honest, their intelligence is probably lower than the average engineering professor – and certainly below that of mathematicians and statisticians.

My GRE scores were very good, and I found epidemiology to be a very interesting subject – plus, I can be pretty oblivious to what other people think.  Yet when I told several of my professors in math and engineering of my plans, it was hard for me to miss their looks of disappointment.  It’s just not a track that driven, intelligent people with a hint of quantitative ability take.

What is the political orientation of epidemiologists?  What is their social welfare function?

Left, left, left.  In the United States, I would be shocked if more than 2-5% of epidemiologists voted for Republicans in 2016 – at least among academics.  At [aforementioned very very good school], I’d be surprised if the number was 1%.  I remember the various unprompted bashing of Trump and generic Republicans on political matters unrelated to epidemiology in at least four classes during the 2016-17 academic year.  Add that to the (literal) days of mourning after the election, it’s fair to say that academic epidemiologists are pretty solidly in the left-wing camp. (Note: I didn’t vote for Trump or any other Republican in 2016 or 2018)

I was pleasantly surprised during my time at [very, very good school] that there was at least some discussion of cost-benefit analysis for public health actions, including quarantine procedures.  Realistically though, there’s a dominant strain of thought that the economic costs of an action are secondary to stopping the spread of an epidemic.  To summarize the SWF: damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!

Do epidemiologists perform uncertainty quantification?

They seem to play around with tools like the ensemble Kalman filter (found in weather forecasting) and stochastic differential equations, but it’s fair to say that mechanical engineers are much better at accounting for uncertainty (especially in parameters and boundary conditions) in their simulations than epidemiologists.  By extension, that probably means that econometricians are better too.”

TC again: I am happy to pass along other well-thought out perspectives on this matter, and I would like to hear a more positive take.  Please note I am not endorsing these (or subsequent) observations, I genuinely do not know, and I will repeat I do not think economists are likely better.  It simply seems to me that “who are these epidemiologists anyway?” is a question now worth addressing, and hardly anyone is willing to do that.

As an opening gambit, I’d like to propose that we pay epidemiologists more.  (And one of my correspondents points out they are too often paid on “soft money.”)  I know, I know, this plays with your mood affiliation.  You would like to find a way of endorsing that conclusion, without simultaneously admitting that right now maybe the quality isn’t quite high enough.


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