Category: Science

Will science funding be revolutionized?

The National Science Foundation (NSF) would get a sweeping remake—including a new name, a huge infusion of cash, and responsibility for maintaining U.S. global leadership in innovation—under bipartisan bills that have just been introduced in both houses of Congress.

Many scientific leaders are thrilled that the bills call for giving NSF an additional $100 billion over 5 years to carry out its new duties. But some worry the legislation, if enacted, could compromise NSF’s historical mission to explore the frontiers of knowledge without regard to possible commercial applications.

The Endless Frontiers Act (S. 3832) proposes a major reorganization of NSF, creating a technology directorate that, within 4 years, would grow to more than four times the size of the entire agency’s existing $8 billion budget. NSF would be renamed the National Science and Technology Foundation, and both the science and technology arms would be led by a deputy reporting to the NSF director. (NSF now has a single deputy director; the slot has been unfilled since 2014.)

And:

Passage of the legislation could significantly alter how NSF operates. In particular, agency officials would have the authority to adopt some of the management practices used by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) within the Department of Defense, known for its agility and focus on tangible, deadline-driven results. “The new [technology] directorate can run like DARPA if NSF wants it to,” says one university lobbyist familiar with Schumer’s thinking.

One provision would expand NSF’s ability to use outside experts hired for short stints. At DARPA, new program managers are expected to propose significant changes to the research portfolios of their predecessors, with the best new ideas receiving generous funding. In contrast, NSF’s core disciplinary programs change very little from year to year.

The bill has some degree of bipartisan support, and of course I will be following this issue.  Here is the full story, via J.

My (second) Conversation with Paul Romer

Interesting throughout, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the summary:

Paul Romer makes his second appearance to discuss the failings of economics, how his mass testing plan for COVID-19 would work, what aspect of epidemiology concern him, how the FDA is slowing a better response, his ideas for reopening schools and Major League Baseball, where he agrees with Weyl’s test plan, why charter cities need a new name, what went wrong with Honduras, the development trajectory for sub-Saharan Africa, how he’d reform the World Bank, the underrated benefits of a culture of science, his heartening takeaway about human nature from his experience at Burning Man, and more.

I liked the parts about charter cities and the World Bank the best, here is one excerpt:

COWEN: How optimistic are you more generally about the developmental trajectory for sub-Saharan Africa?

ROMER: There’s a saying I picked up from Gordon Brown, that in establishing the rule of law, the first five centuries are always the hardest. I think some parts of this development process are just very slow. If you look around the world, all the efforts since World War II that’s gone into trying to build strong, effective states, to establish the rule of law in a functioning state, I think the external investments in building states have yielded very little.

So we need to think about ways to transfer the functioning of existing states rather than just build them from scratch in existing places. That’s a lot of the impetus behind this charter cities idea. It’s both — you select people coming in who have a particular set of norms that then become the dominant norms in this new place, but you also protect those norms by certain kinds of administrative structures, state functions that reinforce them.

And this:

COWEN: If you could reform the World Bank, what would you do?

ROMER: Oh, that’s an interesting question. I think the Bank is trying to serve two missions, and it can’t do both. One is a diplomatic function, which I think is very important. The World Bank is a place where somebody who represents the government of China and somebody who represents the government of the United States sit in a conference room and argue, “Should we do A or B?” Not just argue, but discuss, negotiate. On a regular basis, they make decisions.

And it isn’t just China and the US. It’s a bunch of countries. I think it’s very good for personal relationships, for the careers of people who will go on to have other positions in these governments, to have that kind of experience of, basically, diplomatic negotiation over a bunch of relatively small items because it’s a confidence-building measure that makes it possible for countries to make bigger diplomatic decisions when they have to.

That, I think, is the value of the World Bank right now. The problem is that that diplomatic function is inconsistent with the function of being a provider of scientific insight. The scientific endeavor has to be committed to truth, no matter whose feathers get ruffled. There’s certain convenient fictions that are required for diplomacy to work. You start accepting convenient fictions in science, and science is just dead.

So the Bank’s got to decide: is it engaged in diplomacy or science? I think the diplomacy is its unique comparative advantage. Therefore, I think it’s got to get out of the scientific business. It should just outsource its research. It shouldn’t try and be a research organization, and it should just be transparent about what it can be good at and is good at.

And toward the end:

COWEN: Last question thread, what did you learn at Burning Man?

ROMER: Sometimes physical presence is necessary to appreciate something like scale. The scale of everything at Burning Man was just totally unexpected, a total surprise for me, even having looked at all of these pictures and so forth. That was one.

Another thing that really stood out, which is not exactly a surprise, but maybe it was the surprise in that group — if you ask, what do people do if you put them in a setting where there’s supposed to be no compensation, no quid pro quo, and you just give them a chance to be there for a week. What do they do?

They work.

For purposes of contrast, here is my first Conversation with Paul Romer.

Early distancing can be very potent

Finally a rainfall paper that perhaps you can believe in!?:

We test whether earlier social distancing affects the progression of a local COVID-19 out-break. We exploit county-level rainfall on the last weekend before statewide lockdown. After controlling for state fixed-effects, temperature, and historical rainfall, current rainfall is a plausibly exogenous instrument for social distancing. Early distancing causes a reduction in cases and deaths that persists for weeks. The effect is driven by a reduction in the chance of a very large outbreak. The result suggests early distancing may have sizable returns, and that random events early in an outbreak can have persistent effects on its course.

Here is more from Rolly Kapoor, et.al.  Here is a relevant Twitter thread, via Gaurav Sood.

Did crazy Republican tax-cutters defund the regulatory state for decades?

Minton is the author of a newly released study showing just how far the CDC has strayed from its core mission. In addition to combating dangerous infectious diseases like HIV and malaria, the CDC now also studies alcohol and tobacco use, athletic injuries, traffic accidents, and gun violence. While those things can indeed be important factors to public health, Minton notes, they don’t seem to fall within the agency’s original mission.

They do, however, explain why the CDC’s budget has ballooned from $590 million in 1987 to more than $8 billion last year. If the agency had grown with inflation since 1987, it would have a budget of about $1.3 billion today. Total federal spending, meanwhile, has grown from a hair over $1 trillion in 1987 to $4.4 trillion last year—which means that the CDC’s budget has grown faster the government’s overall spending.

That is by Eric Boehm at Reason.  Via J.

Emergent Ventures prize winners, third cohort

I am happy to announce two further winners of the Emergent Ventures prizes to fight Covid-19.

The first is to Statnews.com for their excellent and intelligent reporting on public health, including the coronavirus, with the latter articles being ungated.

This is not only a prize for past achievement, but also resources to allow them to continue into the future.  As most of you know, journalism is a highly precarious enterprise these days.

And to be clear, this is a one-time prize and it involves absolutely no editorial control or influence over what they publish.

Here is a recent NYT article on Statnews.com.  the headline reads: “The Medical News Site that Saw the Coronavirus Coming Months Ago.”

The second winner is Tina White and Covid Watch, for their work on track and trace apps, you will note that Tina and her group were earlier winners of a (smaller) Emergent Ventures fellowship.  This is an Early Response prize, for their critical and timely work to boost the quality of these apps and to make them more privacy-friendly and more palatable to civil liberties concerns.  Here is some coverage:

This App Protects Privacy While Tracing Covid-19 Infections

Here is the second cohort of prize winners, here is the first cohort.  And here is an update from Celine, from Curative Inc., from the very first cohort of winners:

Emergent Ventures is pleased to have been their very first funder, and to have consummated the entire grant process, including the wire of funds (at the time critical for materials purchase), in less than 24 hours.

Some reflections on GRE scores

The evidence indicates that GRE scores predict graduate school success, general intelligence, and also that SAT scores predict later success in science.  Here is further evidence, and here is yet further evidence.

You don’t have to think that “high GRE score fields” are better than “low GRE score fields.”  Many of my friends, for instance, think string theory is intellectually bankrupt, despite many of its proponents being very, very smart.  I don’t have an opinion on string theory per se, but my friends might be right, and in any case I would rather read books from cultural studies, a lower GRE score field.

If you wish to understand the relative strengths and pathologies of theoretical physics and cultural studies, you cannot do that without knowing that the former is a relatively high GRE score field (or the equivalent) and that the latter is a relatively low GRE score field (or the equivalent).

There are many top economists on Twitter, most of them Democrats, who would never ever utter a word about GRE scores in a blog post or on Twitter.  Yet when on an admissions committee, they will ruthlessly enforce the strictest standards for math GRE scores without hesitation.  Not only in top ten programs, but in top thirty programs and even further down the line in many cases.  It is very, very hard to get into a top or even second-tier economics program without an absolutely stellar math GRE score, and yes that is enforced by the same humans who won’t talk about the issue.

Just in case you didn’t know that.

Personally, I feel it has gone too far in that direction, and economics has overinvested in one very particular kind of intelligence (I would myself put greater stress on the old GRE subject test scores for economics, thus selecting for those with an initial interest in the economy rather than in mathematics).

When I did graduate admissions for George Mason University, I very consciously moved away from an emphasis on GRE scores, and for the better.  My first goal was simply to take in more students, and a more diverse group of students, and in fact many of the later top performers were originally “marginal” students by GRE standards.  Looking back, many of our top GRE-scoring students have not done better than the peers, though they have done fine.  For GMU these admission criteria are (in my view) more like the Rosen-Roback model than anything else, though I would readily grant Harvard and MIT are not in the same position.

If you are afraid to talk about GRE scores, you are afraid to talk about reality.

Alexander Wendt on why we should take UFOs seriously

He has more than just the usual hand-wringing, here is one excerpt:

Sean Illing

…What’s the Occam’s razor explanation for these UFO sightings?

Alexander Wendt

To me, the Occam’s razor explanation is ETs.

Here is another:

Sean Illing

If some of these UFOs are the products of alien life, why haven’t they made their presence more explicit? If they wanted to remain undetected, they could, and yet they continually expose themselves in these semi-clandestine ways. Why?

Alexander Wendt

That’s a very good question. Because you’re right, I think if they wanted to be completely secretive, they could. If they wanted to come out in the open, they could do that, too. My guess is that they have had a lot of experience with this in the past with civilizations at our stage. And they probably know that if they land on the White House lawn, there’ll be chaos and social breakdown. People will start shooting at them.

So I think what they’re doing is trying to get us used to the idea that they’re here with the hopes that we’ll figure it out ourselves, that we’ll go beyond the taboo and do the science. And then maybe we can absorb the knowledge that we’re not alone and our society won’t implode when we finally do have contact. That’s my theory, but who knows, right?

Here is the full piece, interesting and intelligent throughout.

Testing participation vs. testing capacity

This paper argues that testing participation –and not testing capacity–is the biggest obstacle to a successful “test and isolate”-strategy, as recently proposed by Paul Romer. If 𝑅0=2.5,at least 60percentof a population needs to participate in a testing program to make it theoretically possible to achieve an effective reproduction rate for the whole population,𝑅′′, below 1. I also argue that Paul Romer’s assumption about quarantine length is problematic,because it implicitly assumes that an infected and tested person is quarantined during the entire duration of the illness. With more realistic assumptions, where the fraction of the illness duration that is spent in quarantine depends on the test frequency, at least 80percentof the population must participate to keep 𝑅0′′<1, even if participants in the test program are tested every five days.Comprehensive testing,as proposed by Romer,is probably still a very cost-effective means of reducing the reproduction rate of the infection compared to mandatory lockdown policies, but it seems less promising than he suggests.How-ever, comprehensive testing might also reduce voluntary social distancing in a non-cost-effective way because testing and isolating infected individuals decreases the risk of infection for an individual if social distancing is not practiced.

Here is the full paper by Jonas Herby.

*Good Work if You Can Get It: How to Succeed in Academia*

That is the new Jason Brennan book, just out yesterday, here is a summary:

This candid, pull-no-punches book answers questions big and small, including

• Should I go to graduate school—and what will I do once I get there?
• How much does a PhD cost—and should I pay for one?
• What kinds of jobs are there after grad school, and who gets them?
• What happens to the people who never get full-time professorships?
• What does it take to be productive, to publish continually at a high level?
• What does it take to teach many classes at once?
• What does it take to succeed in graduate school?
• How does “publish or perish” work?
• How much do professors get paid?
• What do search committees look for, and what turns them off?
• How do I know which journals and book publishers matter?
• How do I balance work and life?

This realistic, data-driven look at university teaching and research will make your graduate and postgraduate experience a success.

Here is my blurb:

“In Good Work If You Can Get It, Jason Brennan tells it like it is. You will get the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This is the one book to read about trying to become a professor.”

Self-recommended.  And here is Bryan Caplan’s excellent review.

Who wants to take UFO sightings more seriously?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Among my friends and acquaintances, the best predictor of how seriously they take the matter is whether they read science fiction in their youth. As you might expect, the science-fiction readers are willing to entertain the more outlandish possibilities. Even if these are not “little green men,” the idea that the Chinese or Russians have a craft that can track and outmaneuver the U.S. military is newsworthy in and of itself. So would be a secret U.S. craft, especially one unknown to military pilots.

The cynical view is that the science-fiction readers are a bit crazy and are trying to recapture the excitement of their youth by speculating about UFOs. Under this theory, they shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than Tolkien fans who wonder if orcs are hiding under the next stone.

The more positive view is that science-fiction readers are more willing to consider new ideas and practices. This kind of openness presumably is a good thing, at least in general, so why aren’t the opinions of more “open” observers accorded more respect? Science-fiction readers have long experience thinking about worlds that are very different from the current one, and perhaps that makes them more perceptive when something truly unusual does come along.

Some of the individuals who were early to see and point out Covid-19 risk, such as tech entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan, also have taken the UFO reports seriously, perhaps due to the same flexibility of mind.

Do read the whole thing, the column does not excerpt easily.

Rapid progress from Fast Grants

I was pleased to read this NYT reporting:

Yet another team has been trying to find drugs that work against coronavirus — and also to learn why they work.

The team, led by Nevan Krogan at the University of California, San Francisco, has focused on how the new coronavirus takes over our cells at the molecular level.

The researchers determined that the virus manipulates our cells by locking onto at least 332 of our own proteins. By manipulating those proteins, the virus gets our cells to make new viruses.

Dr. Krogan’s team found 69 drugs that target the same proteins in our cells the virus does. They published the list in a preprint last month, suggesting that some might prove effective against Covid-19…

It turned out that most of the 69 candidates did fail. But both in Paris and New York [where the drugs were shipped for testing], the researchers found that nine drugs drove the virus down.

“The things we’re finding are 10 to a hundred times more potent than remdesivir,” Dr. Krogan said. He and his colleagues published their findings Thursday in the journal Nature.

The Krogan team was an early recipient of Fast Grants, and you will find more detail about their work at the above NYT link.  Fast Grants is also supporting Patrick Hsu and his team at UC Berkeley:

And the work of the Addgene team:

Washington Post covers Fast Grants

Here is the opening:

Economist Tyler Cowen first sounded the alarm that America is unprepared for a pandemic in 2005, when he wrote a paper outlining ways the country should respond and, for a few years, ran a blog focused on the possibility of an avian flu outbreak.

Fifteen years later, as a novel coronavirus brings Cowen’s fears into reality, the George Mason University professor is trying to fix what he and others view as a structural problem impeding the scientific response to the crisis: the months-long application and review process scientists must endure to get their research funded.

Here is the full story by Will Hobson.  Recommended.

My Conversation with Glen Weyl

I found it interesting throughout, the first half was on Covid-19 testing, and the second half on everything else.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the summary:

Tyler invited Glen to discuss the plan, including how it’d overcome obstacles to scaling up testing and tracing, what other countries got right and wrong in their responses, the unusual reason why he’s bothered by price gouging on PPE supplies, where his plan differs with Paul Romer’s, and more. They also discuss academia’s responsibility to inform public discourse, how he’d apply his ideas on mechanism design to reform tenure and admissions, his unique intellectual journey from socialism to libertarianism and beyond, the common element that attracts him to both the movie Memento and Don McLean’s “American Pie,” what talent he looks for in young economists, the struggle to straddle the divide between academia and politics, the benefits and drawbacks of rollerblading to class, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

And:

And:

For me the most instructive part was this:

COWEN: What do you view yourself as rebelling against? At the foundational level.

But you will have to read or listen to hear Glen’s very good answer.

Definitely recommended.

Modeling COVID-19 on a network: super-spreaders, testing and containment

These would seem to be some important results:

To model COVID-19 spread, we use an SEIR agent-based model on a graph, which takes into account several important real-life attributes of COVID-19: super-spreaders, realistic epidemiological parameters of the disease, testing and quarantine policies. We find that mass-testing is much less effective than testing the symptomatic and contact tracing, and some blend of these with social distancing is required to achieve suppression. We also find that the fat tail of the degree distribution matters a lot for epidemic growth, and many standard models do not account for this. Additionally, the average reproduction number for individuals, equivalent in many models to R0, is not an upper bound for the effective reproduction number, R. Even with an expectation of less than one new case per person, our model shows that exponential spread is possible. The parameter which closely predicts growth rate is the ratio between 2nd to 1st moments of the degree distribution. We provide mathematical arguments to argue that certain results of our simulations hold in more general settings.

And from the body of the paper:

To create containment, we need to test 30% of the population every day. If we only test 10% of the population every day, we get 34% of the population infected – no containment (blue bars).

As for test and trace:

Even with 100% of contacts traced and tested, still mass-testing of just over 10% of the population daily is required for containment.

The authors are not anti-testing (though relatively skeptical about mass testing compared to some of its adherents), but rather think a combination is required in what is a very tough fight:

Our simulations suggest some social distancing (short of lockdown), testing of symptomatics and contact tracing are the way to go.

That is all from a new paper by Ofir Reich, Guy Shalev, and Tom Kalvari, from Google, Google, and Tel Aviv University, respectively.  Here is a related tweetstorm.  With this research, I feel we are finally getting somewhere.