Category: Science

NASA Reduces Existential Risk!

Congratulations to NASA for a direct hit on an asteroid with the goal of shifting its orbit and proving the feasibility of protecting the planet. A great step for mankind!

Tyler and I use asteroid defense as an example of a true public good in our textbook, Modern Principles. Here’s the video from our textbook. Not quite so dramatic but funnier!

*Second City: Birmingham and the Forging of Modern Britain*

By Richard Vinen, do not forget that the Lunar Society (subject of the very first MR post!) was based there.  Here is one excerpt:

What has come to be called the Birmingham or Midlands Enlightenment brought together an unusually curious and energetic group of men…Joseph Priestly and William Hutton epitomized the atmosphere of optimism, uninhibited enquiry and material prosperity some associated with Birmingham in the eighteenth century.  The former was a minister of religion, though mainly known to posterity as a scientist; the latter was a well-to-do bookseller, though mainly known to posterity as a writer, particularly as the author of the first history of his adopted city.  Both men, however, came ot have less happy memories of Birmingham than those implied by the quotations above because both their houses were burned down in the Church and King riots of 1791.

Strongly recommended to all those who care about such things, you can order here.

Plastic Might Be Making You Fat

WashPost: An emerging view among scientists is that one major overlooked component in obesity is almost certainly our environment — in particular, the pervasive presence within it of chemicals which, even at very low doses, act to disturb the normal functioning of human metabolism, upsetting the body’s ability to regulate its intake and expenditure of energy.

Some of these chemicals, known as “obesogens,” directly boost the production of specific cell types and fatty tissues associated with obesity. Unfortunately, these chemicals are used in many of the most basic products of modern life including plastic packaging, clothes and furniture, cosmetics, food additives, herbicides and pesticides.

Ten years ago the idea of chemically induced obesity was something of a fringe hypothesis, but not anymore.

“Obesogens are certainly a contributing factor to the obesity epidemic,” is what Bruce Blumberg, an expert on obesity and endocrine-disrupting chemicals from the University of California, Irvine, told me by email. “The difficulty is determining what fraction of obesity is related to chemical exposure.”

An important piece of evidence is something I pointed to in my post The Animals are Also Getting Fat namely, cats and dogs are getting fatter and so are rats and so (very importantly) are control mice fed a very standard diet. I hadn’t realized there is also some experimental evidence.

 In particular, consequences of chemical exposure may not appear during the lifetime of an exposed organism but can be passed down through so-called epigenetic mechanisms to offspring even several generations away. A typical example is tributyltin or TBT, a chemical used in wood preservatives, among other things. In experiments exposing mice to low and supposedly safe levels of TBT, Blumberg and his colleagues found significantly increased fat accumulation in the next three generations.

Overall, I find the chemical story plausible–people in the past, even rich people, just didn’t get fat so easily–but my skepticism rises whenever I hear the word epigenetics.

An Update on Nasal Vaccines

Nasal vaccines are more likely to stop infection than vaccines injected into muscle because they stimulate mucosal immunity in the nose and respiratory system, the first line of attack, and they are likely to increase uptake especially among people with trypanophobia. Hence my longstanding call for an Operation Warp Speed for nasal vaccines. We haven’t got OWS 2.0 in the United States but nasal vaccines have recently been approved in China and India.

The Chinese vaccine is developed by CanSino and is the same as its injected vaccine but packaged in an aerosol taken with a nebulizer. It has been approved in China as a booster. Another advantage is that the Chinese nasal vaccine it’s one-fifth the dose of the injected version. India has also just approved a nasal vaccine on an emergency use basis. The Indian vaccine was developed by Bharat Biotech in a partnership with Washington University St. Louis.

Nasal vaccines as boosters seem like an especially promising approach as administration is much easier.

Mandated vaccine boosters for the AEA meetings?

Yes, the new AEA regulations will mandate vaccine boosters for attendance at the New Orleans meetings.  Not just two jabs but yes boosters, at least one of them.

Like the N-95 (or stronger) mask mandate, this seems off base and possibly harmful to public health as well.  Here are a few points:

1. The regulations valorize “booster with an older strain,” and count “infection with a recent strain” for nothing.  In fact, the latter is considerably more valuable, most of all to estimate a person’s public safety impact on others.  So the regulations simply target the wrong variable.

1b. People who are boosted might even be less likely to have caught the newer strains (presumably the boosters are at least somewhat useful).  Thus they are potentially more dangerous to others, not less, being on average immunologically more naive.  Ideally you want a batch of attendees who just had Covid two or three months ago.

2. More than three-quarters of Americans have not had a booster to date.  Very likely the percentage of potential AEA attendees with boosters stands at a considerably higher level.  Still, this is a fairly exclusionary policy, and pretty far from what most Americans consider to be an acceptable regulation.

2b. To be clear, I had my booster right away, even though I expected it would make me sick for two days (it did).  I am far from being anti-booster.  I am glad I had my booster, but I also understand full well the distinction between “getting a booster at the time was the right decision,” and “we should mandate booster shots today.”  They are very different!  Don’t just positively mood affiliate with boosters.  Think through the actual policies.

3. Blacks are a relatively undervaccinated group, and probably they are less boosted as well.  The same may or may not be true for black potential AEA attendees, but it is certainly possible.  After all the talk of DEI, and I for one would like to see more inclusion, why are we making inclusion harder?  And for no good medical reason.

3b. How about potential attendees from Africa, Latin America, and other regions where boosters are harder to come by?  What are their rates of being boosted?  Do they all have to fly to America a few days earlier, line up boosters, and hope the ill effects wear off by the time of the meetings?  Why are we doing this to them?

3c. Will the same booster requirements be applied to hotel staff and contractors?  Somehow I think not.  Maybe that is a sign the boosters are not so important for conference well-being after all?

4. Many people are in a position, right now, where they should not boost.  Let’s say you had Covid a few months ago, and are wondering if you should get a booster now or soon.  I looked into this recently, and found the weight of opinion was that you should wait at least six months for your immune system to process the recent infection.  That did not seem to be “settled science,” but rather a series of judgments, admittedly with uncertainty.  So now let’s take those people who were not boosted, had a new strain of Covid recently, and want to go to the AEA meetings.  (The first two of three there cover a lot of people.)  They have to get boosted.  And in expected value terms, boosting is bad for them.  Did this argument even occur to the decision-makers at the AEA?

5. The AEA mentions nothing about religious or other exceptions to the policy.  Maybe there are “under the table” exceptions, but really?  Why not spell out the actual policy here, and if there are no exceptions come right out and tell us.  And explain why so few other institutions have chosen the “no exceptions” path, and why the AEA should be different.  (As a side note, it is not so easy to process exceptions for the subset of the 13,000 possible attendees who want them.  Does the AEA have this capacity?)

Again, this is simply a poorly thought out policy, whether for N-95 masks or for boosters.  I hope the AEA will discard it as soon as possible.  Or how about a simple, open poll of membership, simple yes or not on the current proposal?

Hume on the Rise And Progress of the Arts And Sciences

Avarice, or the desire of gain, is an universal passion, which operates at all times, in all places, and upon all persons: But curiosity, or the love of knowledge, has a very limited influence, and requires youth, leisure, education, genius, and example, to make it govern any person. You will never want booksellers, while there are buyers of books: But there may frequently be readers where there are no authors.

David Hume explaining why it’s more difficult to explain the progress of the arts and sciences than economic progress, even if the latter may depend on the former. And here is Hume on geography and the growth of the arts and sciences:

But the divisions into small states are favourable to learning, by stopping the progress of authority as well as that of power. Reputation is often as great a fascination upon men as sovereignty, and is equally destructive to the freedom of thought and examination. But where a number of neighbouring states have a great intercourse of arts and commerce, their mutual jealousy keeps them from receiving too lightly the law from each other, in matters of taste and of reasoning, and makes them examine every work of art with the greatest care and accuracy. The contagion of popular opinion spreads not so easily from one place to another. It readily receives a check in some state or other, where it concurs not with the prevailing prejudices. And nothing but nature and reason, or, at least, what bears them a strong resemblance, can force its way through all obstacles, and unite the most rival nations into an esteem and admiration of it.

…In China, there seems to be a pretty considerable stock of politeness and science, which, in the course of so many centuries, might naturally be expected to ripen into some thing more perfect and finished, than what has yet arisen from them. But China is one vast empire, speaking one language, governed by one law, and sympathizing in the same manners. The authority of any teacher, such as Confucius, was propagated easily from one corner of the empire to the other. None had courage to resist the torrent of popular opinion. And posterity was not bold enough to dispute what had been universally received by their ancestors. This seems to be one natural reason, why the sciences have made so slow a progress in that mighty empire.

If we consider the face of the globe, Europe, of all the four parts of the world, is the most broken by seas, rivers, and mountains; and Greece of all countries of Europe. Hence these regions were naturally divided into several distinct governments. And hence the sciences arose in Greece; and Europe has been hitherto the most constant habitation of them.

See Tyler’s In Praise of Commericial Culture for more Humean themes.

Will open science matter?

Yesterday I posted this link, about how federally funded science will have to be made open access right away.  I’m all for this, as it has some upside and no downside that I can see.  Still, at the margin I am not sure it will make a huge difference.

Who says when the research is “ready” to be posted?  No matter what you put in the fine print, de facto that is a decision made by the scientists.  If scientists wish to delay open access publication, I doubt if this will stop them.  “The paper simply isn’t finished yet.”  The law cannot in practice dictate otherwise.  Of course scientists already put plenty of works on-line and open to the public, and this private calculation will continue, but with only modest changes.

The actual main effect will be to enable scientists to resist commercial attempts to monopolize publication rights in closed access form.  Presumably such contracts now will be illegal.  But think about the new equilibrium: there will be a final, published, canonical version of the article published in The Journal of Botchagaloup.  There will be an open access, not yet published, non-canonical (no proper pp. at the very least) version on the scientist’s home page.  And very often there will be an illegal copy of the canonical version on SciHub, the pirate site for scientific papers.  Plus the data copies that circulated before the commercial publisher made the authors take them down.

How is that so different from the status quo?  Some scientists who didn’t get a crack at the data the first time around won’t have to wait as long to access it.  And maybe scientists will make more of an effort for the open access version of their papers to be closer to the canonical versions published in commercial journals.  This could prove a modest benefit, though you, as an outside scientist, wishing to cite “p.43” just won’t know how canonical the open access version will be.  And presumably for-profit commercial journals will add extra stages to the final production process, if only to keep interest in the product they are selling, relative to the open access versions on-line.  So I don’t think it will “do under” for-profit scientific publishing, not to mention that many articles are not federally funded by the U.S. government.

A more radical policy change would have been to require the journals to make their final versions of the papers open to the public, and in the final, canonical versions.  That would create greater benefits, but also run the risk of putting those journals out of business.  As I understand the new dictate, it does not do this.

The new law also will give scientists leverage against private companies that wish to buy up the research rights and not publicize the results.  Probably this is a benefit, though that doesn’t hold a priori, as it does raise the cost of private sector involvement by forcing them to share the information more.  And some unscrupulous scientists might try to get a better deal from the companies by releasing a different and inferior version of “the public research results” to the open access community.  Still, on net I expect these are benefits.

Addendum: You may recall that Fast Grants had its own version of an open access requirement.  I think this worked quite well!  But it is interesting why it might have proven effective.  I think we credibly signaled that people with open and early good results would be plausible candidates for additional funding, and soon, and indeed some of them were.  To the extent that the federal government can signal the same, good incentives will be all the stronger.  But this new OSTP order does not coordinate future funding decisions per se, and I don’t see any clauses that the NIH, NSF, and others are bound to revise their funding policies accordingly, to favor researchers who come out with speedy, open results.  So the benefits here could be much greater if the entire federal science apparatus could signal its prioritization of speed and openness.  We are still quite far from this.  Nonetheless, this policy is a marginal improvement and a step in the right direction and its creates some preconditions for matters getting better yet.

Emergent Ventures India, fourth cohort

Here is the latest EV India cohort, and I am delighted to see more applications from young women and teenagers.  I note also that a lot of the applicants for EV India are increasingly from smaller towns, or were raised in small towns before moving to larger cities for their projects.

EV India now has 75 winners!  And I met most of them in Udaipur this last weekend.  Here is the list of new winners:

Siddharth Kanungo is a chemical engineer by training and founder of Primer, an interactive conversational learning platform. Primer is designed for self-learners to learn subjects like mathematics, physics, computer science, that are usually offered in a university-level setting.

Keertana Subramani is a 23-year-old educator and social entrepreneur who wants to provide high-quality, accessible learning experiences. She received her EV grant to build SUVY Classes, a platform that vets and trains tutors for quality, and offers engaging, live classes for any learning need, and at twenty cents a day.

Arun Iyyanarappan is a 28-year-old electrical and software engineer passionate about creating alternate systems for electric power consumption. He received his EV grant to build a cost-effective solar powered house to show proof of concept for electrifying homes in rural areas at low-cost.

Gowtham Tummeda is a 21-year-old student interested in biology and programming and views biology as a software problem.  He received his EV grant to build an end-to-end AI platform for biological data analysis. His larger ambition is to use the platform to model, design and simulate changes to strands of DNA at protein level using Deep Mind’s Alpha Fold.

Tejas Sidnal is an architect and researcher from Mumbai. He is the founder of CarbonCraft, a design and material innovation startup converting carbon emissions into building materials by fusing material knowledge of clean technologies with traditional techniques. He received an EV grant to reduce the curing process for Carbon Tiles from 28 days to under four hours for tiles that store captured carbon.

Hiya Jain is an 18-year-old interested in using EdTech to make education equitable. She received her EV grant to travel to San Francisco and better understand the EdTech space. She is currently working on UnMold, a project connecting high-school students in developing countries to PhD students running high information, low pressure, cohort-based courses to inject inspiration into a system.

Shruti Karandikar is a 16-year-old high school student from Bangalore. She has started ‘Screens for the Unscreened’ to collect phones, tablets, and laptops and donate them to underprivileged students. This is being converted into a non-governmental organization called ‘Mobilize’.

Sainadh Chityala  is a 22-year-old engineering student. He received the EV grant to develop software to power self-driving cars in unpredictable and chaotic driving environments in urban India.

Samarth Bansal  is a 28-year-old independent journalist and programmer in India. His reporting has appeared in Indian and foreign press like the The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Hindustan Times, The Hindu, Mint, and HuffPost, etc. He writes The Interval, a fortnightly newsletter. He received his EV grant to merge his two interests – developing AI platforms for journalism and serve the news at higher speed and lower cost.

Apurwa Masook is a 23-year-old structural engineer who graduated and cofounded and spearheaded India’s first Indigenous Student Rocketry Mission. He is the founder of Space Fields, a team of hustlers, engineers and space aficionados working towards affordable access to space. He received his EV grant to support Space Fields’s efforts in developing a low-cost high-performance green compositepellant to power next generation of Launch Vehicles.

Snigdha Poonam  is a 38-year-old journalist and author from Delhi. She has written about identity politics, income inequality, tech culture, and crime.  Her first book, Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World, won 2018’s Crossword Award for nonfiction. She received an EV grant to travel across India to for her investigative work on scams and fraud in the contemporary Indian political economy.

Aniruddha Kenge is a 20-year-old student of industrial design with an interest in carbon-based materials, especially graphene. He is working towards decarbonizing plastics and making their use, reuse, and production sustainable, swiftly. He received his EV grant to develop hemp fiber-based bio-composites in India that can replace multi-use plastics.

Keya Krishna is a 16-year-old high school student in Washington DC interested in the intersection of science, technology, and public policy. She received her EV grant to measure pollution exposures at a hyper-local level with a high level of spatial and temporal granularity, specifically focusing on the pollution exposure of school-going youth.

Abhilash Mishra is the Founder and Chief Science Officer of EquiTech Futures. He trained as a physicist and holds an M.Phys from the University of Oxford and a PhD in Astrophysics from Caltech. EquiTech Futures is a network of innovators from around the world using data science and AI to tackle societal challenges. Abhilash received his EV grant to develop and scale cohort-based courses, research residencies, and educational networking, through their programs EquiTech Scholars, EquiTech Residency, and EquiTech Institutes.

Reuben Abraham is the founding CEO of Artha Global, a new Mumbai and London based policy research and consulting organization that provides the scaffolding for efforts aimed at building state capacity. He was named ‘Think Tanker of the Year 2022’ by Prospect Magazine for putting together a large platform that enabled inter-disciplinary work to tackle the Covid-19 crisis in India.

Zi Cheng “Sam” Huang is a 26-year-old ethnographic researcher interested in elite spaces and cultural replication. Currently, they are assisting on a project about the beliefs of AI researchers. In their free time, they coach Peking University in competitive debating, effective altruism, and started a fellowship for talented young debaters to engage in effective altruism. With their EV grant, they seek to understand scaling education programs in India especially IITs.

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is an entrepreneur and writer from Dhaka, Bangladesh. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure: A short guide to living an entrepreneurial life. He received his EV grant to scale Future Startup into a leading destination to learn about entrepreneurship, tech, and business in Bangladesh.

Hemanth Bharatha Chakravarthy (21) and Benjamin Hoffner-Brodsky (22) are data scientists from Chennai and Davis with backgrounds in computational social science research and government. They founded Jhana, a Bangalore-based artificial intelligence lab, and are interested in simplifying and democratizing legal processes and information, and in building alignment and ethics tools for back-checking deployed AI systems. They are building a state-of-the-art, automatic legal search interface for lawyers and students. 

Tushar Khandelwal (24), is a former investment banker turned social entrepreneur. He is the founder of Sigma91 – a career accelerator for ambitious teens, and has built a community of over 400 highly talented teenagers.

Akash Kulgod is a 22-year-old researcher, writer, and techno-optimist from Belagavi, with a degree in cognitive science from UC Berkeley. He is the founder of Dogluk — a startup-DAO aiming to augment the ability of dogs to detect disease by transforming their olfactory perceptual abilities into digital and multidimensional signatures. He is also a team member of the Rajalakshmi Children Foundation. You can follow his substack for his writing and podcasts about Dogluk, effective altruism, and the psychedelic revival.

Raghav Gupta  is a 24-year-old industrial engineer and the founder of EquiDEI, a crypto-fintech startup. EquiDEI is a blockchain based protocol designed to monetize unbanked supply chain assets of small and medium sized enterprises in India, to provide low risk liquidity options. His ambition is to use his startup to generate wealth and liquidity and jobs for the SME ecosystem.

SealXX is a bioplastic solution to replace single-use plastics based on the concept of biomimicry, and it is founded and run by five teenagers across the world. At SealXX, they want to make the everyday products by mimicking protein-based natural processes by reducing the need for plastic reliance. Chandhana, Nithi, Roy, Nathan, and Elly, cofounders of SealXX were awarded an EV grant to develop and scale their biomimicry process.

  • Nithi Byreddy is a 17-year-old innovator and author researching the applications of carbon capture in climate science. She has worked on creating a blockchain-based solution to reduce people’s carbon footprint and has worked with IKEA to create sustainable innovations to reduce their carbon emissions.
  • Roy Kim is a 16-year-old innovator and environmentalist interested in mimicking the mechanisms and designs of nature to create sustainable environments, mainly cities. In addition to working alongside Walmart, he is currently developing a theoretical ecological urban utopia and further exploring the applications of biomimicry in our society.
  • Nathan Park is a 17-year-old entrepreneur who is interested in economics and business management. He is currently doing research on the economics of the housing market, and running a student-led, scientific publication called MIND Magazines that seeks to make science universally accessible to everyone.

Nexteen is an innovation accelerator program for 13-19 years-old students with programs aimed at exposing students to exponential tech to work on global challenges. Here are some of their ambitious students:

  • Vedanth Nath,16, is is a high schooler, football enthusiast, and the creative engine at Nexteen. Prior to Nexteen, ran Media House, and has worked in in the WASH Sector. He also leads Tech and Youth at LooCafe helping them become the largest Toilet-WASH Company in the country.
  • Karthik Nagapuri, 22, is an innovator, Defi developer, and student getting his completing the last year of his undergraduate degree in Artificial Intelligence. At Nexteen, he’s building the tech infrastructure that would be useful for innovators who are part of the program. He also worked on Safe Block, a crypto wallet nominee system. He is also the winner of a separate EV grant for building open API framework and tech for LooCafe.
  • Ayush Srivastava,19, is a serial entrepreneur who likes to work on operations of new startups to help them grow. He has helped operationalize several startups before Nexteen.
  • Anvitha Kollipara,16, is an entrepreneur. She works on scaling, bringing international accreditation, and acquiring partnerships with companies such as Adobe for the non-profits she founded. She was named one of the top three teen change-makers by Forbes for her work with CareGood Foundation.
  • Harsh Vardhan Shukla,19, is a YouTuber turned entrepreneur, completing his undergraduate degree in business development while working on the side on nanotech projects. He works on content production (videos) and podcasts.

Emergent Ventures India is now large enough for top-up grants and repeat winners! Some familiar names below:

  • Nilay Kulkarni, a 22-year-old software developer from Nashik, for his fintech start up.
  • Swasthik Padma to scale his start-up TrashTrap to scale Plascrete – a high strength building material made by converting non-recyclable plastic waste – for commercial use.
  • Chandra Bhan Prasad to continue his excellent scholarship on Dalit capitalism and Dalit dignity.
  • Naman Pushp, co-founder of Airbound, for his early efforts to explore sustainable on-ground mobility.
  • Onkar Singh to continue developing his open-source CubeSat.

Those unfamiliar with Emergent Ventures can learn more here and here. The EV India announcement is here. More about the winners of EV India second cohort and third cohort. To apply for EV India, use the EV application click the “Apply Now” button and select India from the “My Project Will Affect” drop-down menu.

If you are interested in supporting the India tranche of Emergent Ventures, please write to me or to Shruti at [email protected].

Gender Differences in Persistence and Publishing in Economics

We design an experiment to study gender differences in reactions to editorial decisions on submissions to top economics journals. Respondents read a hypothetical editor’s letter where the decision (e.g., revise and resubmit) is randomized across participants. Relative to an R&R, female assistant professors who receive a rejection perceive a significantly lower likelihood of subsequently publishing the paper in any leading journal than comparable male assistant professors. We do not find this gender difference among tenured professors. We consider several mechanisms, pointing to gender differences in attribution of negative feedback to ability and confidence under time constraints as likely explanations.

Here is the full paper by Gauri Kartini Shastry and Olga Shurchkov.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

One reason why a global carbon tax is impossible

Consequently, from a regional perspective, there are large disagreements about the welfare effects of carbon taxes: when a uniform carbon tax is imposed across all regions, with revenues redistributed locally as a lump sum so that there are no interregional transfers, some regions gain and others lose, often by large amounts that swamp the globally-averaged benefits of carbon taxes.

The microfoundations of that claim are interesting:

At the regional level, the optimal annual average temperature (at which the calibrated inverse U -shape governing how labor productivity varies with temperature reaches its peak) is approximately 12 degrees Celsius (C); an increase of regional temperature from 10 C to 12 C increases a region’s total factor productivity (TFP) by about 1%, while a further increase in annual average temperature from 12 C to 14 C reduces its TFP by about 2%.

Here are some bottom-line numbers on the global costs of climate change, with and without a carbon tax regime:

Without taxes global GDP reaches its nadir (relative to trend) just after 2190, when it is about 7.3% below the trend that would have obtained starting in 1990 without further global warming. With taxes, global GDP reaches its nadir just before 2190, at about 5.5% below trend.

Again, the costs of climate change are a few years of global economic growth.  That is a big deal, and worth attending to, but far from an existential risk.

Here is the 160 pp. NBER working paper by Per Krusell and Anthony A. Smith Jr.

A new study of the European Research Council

I find these results not entirely surprising:

We examine whether the ERC selected researchers with a track record of conducting risky research. We proxy high-risk by a measure of novelty in the publication records of applicants both before and after the application, recognizing that it is but one dimension of risk. We control and interact the risk measure with high-gain by tracking whether the applicant has one or more top 1% highly cited papers in their field. We find that applicants with a history of risky research are less likely to be selected for funding than those without such a history, especially early career applicants. This selection penalty for high-risk also holds among those applicants with a history of high-gain publications.

And this:

To test whether receiving a long and generous prestigious ERC grant promotes risk taking, we employ a diff-in-diff approach. We find no evidence of a significant positive risk treatment effect for advanced grantees. Only for early career grantees do we find that recipients are more likely to engage in risky research, but only compared to applicants who are unsuccessful at the second stage.

You will note that the ERC was originally intended to encourage risk-taking in science.  Here is the full paper by Reinhilde Veugelers, Jian Wang, and Paula Stephan.  It is good to see the economics of science making so much progress as of late.

Evolution and the Poorly Designed Human Eye

The human eye is marvelous but also very poorly designed. The poor design is evidence against intelligent design and in favor of the “unguided, unplanned, messy, quirky, and historically contingent” process of evolutionary design. A short piece from 2008, Suboptimal Optics: Vision Problems as Scars of Evolutionary History, does a nice job explaining.

Most well known is that the wiring is backwards.

The most obvious design flaw of the retina is that the cellular layers are backwards. Light has to travel through multiple layers in order to get to the rods and cones that act as the photoreceptors. There is no functional reason for this arrangement—it is purely quirky and contingent.

Even in a healthy and normally functioning eye, this arrangement causes problems. Because the nerve fibers coming from the rods and cones need to come together as the optic nerve, which then has to travel back to the brain, there needs to be a hole in the retina through which the optic nerve can travel. This hole creates a blind spot in each eye. Our brains compensate for this blind spot so that we normally do not perceive it—but it is there.

From a practical point of view, this is a minor compromise to visual function, but it is completely unnecessary. If the rods and cones were simply turned around so that their cell bodies and axons were behind them (oriented to the direction of light), then there would be no need for a blind spot at all.

Cephalopod’s like octopuses took a slightly different evolutionary path and have a better design:

But the reversal of the wiring isn’t the only design flaw.

The arrangement of the extraocular muscles—the muscles that move the eyes—is also difficult to explain without appealing to evolutionary contingency. There are more muscles than are minimally necessary and yet there is no functional redundancy. In order to move a sphere in any direction, only three muscles would be necessary, evenly spaced like the legs of a tripod. The human eye has six—the superior, inferior, lateral, and medial rectus, and the superior and inferior oblique. And yet, despite the extra three muscles, the loss of function of any one muscle causes an impairment of eye movement and results in double vision or displaced vision. A more frugal design with only three muscles would be more efficient and less prone to malfunction, as there are fewer components to break down.

If the eye were to be designed with more than the minimal three muscles, then it would make sense to arrange the muscles so that the loss of one or even more would not impair eye movement.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip: Paul Kedrosky.

Economics of Ideas, Science and Innovation Online PhD Short Course

The Institute for Progress is hosting a six week course on the economics of ideas, science and innovation taught at the PhD level by Pierre Azoulay, Matt Clancy, Ina Ganguli, Benjamin Jones, and Heidi Williams. What an all star-cast! The syllabus is excellent. The course is aimed at first year or more PhD students. More details here.

The Covidization of science?

The COVID-19 pandemic saw a massive mobilization of the scientific workforce. We evaluated the citation impact of COVID-19 publications relative to all scientific work published in 2020 to 2021, finding that 20% of citations received to papers published in 2020 to 2021 were to COVID-19–related papers. Across science, 98 of the 100 most-cited papers published in 2020 to 2021 were related to COVID-19. A large number of scientists received large numbers of citations to their COVID-19 work, often exceeding the citations they had received to all their work during their entire career. We document a strong covidization of research citations across science.

Here is the full article, by John P.A. Ionnidis,, via Michelle Dawson.

Peer review facts of the day

It’s estimated that, between them, researchers around the world spent a total of 100 million hours on reviewing papers in just 2020 alone. Around 10 percent of economics researchers spend at least 25 working days a year reviewing them…

Today, a scientist who submits a study to Nature or PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, can expect to be published nine months later, on average. In the top economics journals, the process takes even longer – a staggering 34 months, or almost three years. And the length has been crawling upward each year.

That is from Saloni Dattani, at Works in Progress (full issue here, recommended), and she also offers some suggestions for reform.