Category: Science

The Synchron brain-computer interface is implanted in a patient

So much talk about Monkey Pong, but perhaps the real action is elsewhere:

On July 6 a doctor at the Mount Sinai West medical center in New York threaded a 1.5-inch-long implant made up of wires and electrodes into a blood vessel in the brain of a patient with ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The hope is that the patient, who’s lost the ability to move and speak, will be able to surf the web and communicate via email and text simply by thinking—the device will translate his thoughts into commands sent to a computer.

Synchron, the startup behind the technology, has already implanted its devices in four patients in Australia, who haven’t experienced side effects and have been able to carry out such tasks as sending WhatsApp messages and making online purchases.

Here is the yummy-yum part:

A doctor makes an incision in the patient’s neck and feeds the stentrode via a catheter through the jugular vein into a blood vessel nestled within the motor cortex. As the catheter is removed, the stentrode—a cylindrical, hollow wire mesh—opens up and begins to fuse with the outer edges of the vessel. According to Majidi, the process is very similar to implanting a coronary stent and takes just a few minutes.

A second procedure then connects the stentrode via a wire to a computing device implanted in the patient’s chest. To do this, the surgeon must create a tunnel for the wire and a pocket for the device underneath the patient’s skin, much like what’s done to accommodate a pacemaker. The stentrode reads the signals when neurons fire in the brain, and the computing device amplifies those signals and sends them out to a computer or smartphone via Bluetooth.

Here is the full Bloomberg story by Ashlee Vance.

Our regulatory state is failing us, NIH edition

…the lawmakers pressed NIH leadership for answers about the mysterious disappearance of the Scientific Management Review Board, a committee that Congress empaneled in 2006 to ensure the agency was operating efficiently…

“There wasn’t any notification that we weren’t going to meet again — it was just that the meetings stopped getting called,” Nancy Andrews, a onetime board member and the former dean of the Duke University School of Medicine, told STAT in May.

She added: “I had the sense that we were asking questions in areas that they didn’t really want to get into, and I suppose Francis [Collins] in particular didn’t really want us working on.”

Here is the full StatNews piece.

English Forests are Growing

England has doubled the amount of forestland in the past 150 years, and now has as much land dedicated to forests as the year 1350.

As I have reported before, the earth is greening–especially in China and India, in part because of rising CO2 levels and in part because of increasing urbanization and agricultural productivity.

That’s the gist, you can find a more detailed world investigation at OurWorldInData.

Hat tip: the excellent Jeremy Horpedahl.

A Radical Proposal for Funding Science

The process of competing for science funding is so onerous that much of the value is dissipated in seeking funding. Risk aversion by committee means that breakthrough science is often funded surreptiously, on the margin of funded science. These problems are serious and make alternative funding procedures worth thinking about even if radical.

To avoid rent dissipation and risk aversion, our state funding of science should be simplified and decentralized into Researcher Guided Funding. Researcher Guided Funding would take the ~$120 billion spent by the federal government on science each year and distribute it equally to the ~250,000 full-time research and teaching faculty in STEM fields at high research activity universitieswho already get 90% of this money. This amounts to about $500,000 for each researcher every year. You could increase the amount allocated to some researchers while still avoiding dissipating resources on applications by allocating larger grants in a lottery that only some of them win each year. 60% of this money can be spent pursuing any project they want, with no requirements for peer consensus or approval. With no strings attached, Katalin Karikó and Charles Townes could use these funds to pursue their world-changing ideas despite doubt and disapproval from their colleagues. The other 40% would have to be spent funding projects of their peers. This allows important projects to gain a lot of extra funding if a group of researchers are excited about it. With over 5,000 authors on the paper chronicling the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle in the Hadron Supercollider, this group of physicists could muster $2.5 billion dollars a year in funding without consulting any outside sources. This system would avoid the negative effects of long and expensive review processes, because the state hands out the money with very few strings, and risk aversion among funders, because the researchers individually get to decide what to fund and pursue.

There are issues to be sure (see the paper) but experimentation in science funding is called for:

Government funding of science is a logical and well-intentioned attempt to increase the production of a positive externality. However, the institutional forms in which we have chosen to distribute these funds have created parasitic drag on the progress of science. There are many exciting proposals for new ways to fund science, but picking any one of these without rigorous experimentation would be foolish and ironic. The best proposal for science funding reform is to apply science to the problem. Rapid and large-scale experimentation is needed to continuously update and improve our science funding methods.

That is from a prize-winning essay from the CSPI by Maxwell Tabarrok.

See also Tyler’s important post, Science as a source of social alpha.

Science as a source of social alpha

How to improve society is one of the most commonly discussed questions, but it is not always approached with sufficient seriousness. We don’t think analytically enough about which variables can have maximum impact and also which are most feasible to steer.

For instance, the management of science is a radically underappreciated issue. How many managers of scientific labs receive any management training at all, even in the basics? On a scale of 1 to 10, how well are most labs or non-profit scientific ventures run? I’ve asked a number of people in the hard and biological sciences this question, and more often a laugh is the response, rather than a citation of a very specific number. I’ve never heard anyone say they are run just great.

On the other side of the market, the rest of us are failing too. In our social discourse, we have not elevated better scientific management as a social priority. This could be done in our universities, non-profits, research labs, government agencies, and of course in the private sector too. It’s not a sexy policy issue, but science is one of the most significant means for improving society. In the language of finance, you could say that science is a major source of social alpha.

Science offers the added benefit of being relatively easy to influence or control. Trying to improve the management and policy of U.S. science isn’t an easy task, but it is a relatively small part of our economy and the notion of science is relatively well-defined. Furthermore, our government has many direct policy levers such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense, not to mention numerous state universities. If we can’t improve the performance of our science, you have to wonder what can we do.

In contrast, some other sources of society-wide superior performance are broad and far-ranging in nature, but often too difficult to steer. I have in mind such variables as “trust,” or “having a cooperative culture.” Those are strong positives for societies, but also a little intimidating for a policy program and they can be very difficult to pin down.

Is science really a source of social alpha? Well, science gave the world mRNA vaccines, though not to all societies at the same time. The U.S. and UK cashed in early there, in large part due to their domestic scientific achievements. Science helps keep the U.S. defense establishment strong. Superior science also was essential to the building of the United States as a wealthy, developed nation. If you are hoping that we cure cancer, or limit the problems of climate change, those issues too rely on science. Most generally, science feeds into productivity growth which in turns boosts real wages and the general opportunities available in society.

Science policy could take up a much larger “mind space” in current policy debates. American science was mobilized in part due to the panic over the 1957 Sputnik scare, when the Soviet Union seemed to be ahead of the United States in a number of scientific dimensions. We don’t have a comparably focused scare today, but today’s problems are in fact no less urgent.

The institutions of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense and more all have very specific policies toward science. I do not have all or even most of the answers, but what are the chances that those institutions have the very best policies toward science? Pretty close to zero. And as time passes, those institutions seem to become more bureaucratic, more concerned with process, and less innovative, hardly a surprising evolution to anyone familiar with Washington, D.C.

I think we should experiment more with DARPA-like models, where rotating program managers, operating in relatively flat bureaucratic structures, have the autonomy to commit significant sums of money. I also think in pandemics our science institutions should have wartime-like powers to act more quickly and decisively. Whether or not those particular views are correct, a sustained national dialogue about science could yield substantial dividends.

On the research side, science policy and the study of science, should be far more prominent. In my own field, economics, economics of science is barely a subfield and it probably accounts for less than one percent of all research. In my ideal world, it would account for at least five percent of all of economic research.

Similarly, the history of science has produced thousands of wonderful books and articles, but it is hardly the highest-status or most popular subfield in history. We can appreciate what is there while wishing for much, much more, not just in terms of numerical outputs but also in terms of social status and reach to a broader set of readers.

Better science is one of the biggest “free lunches” standing before us.

The NSF Career Award

From an email from an anonymous correspondent:

Tyler, you may already know this, but I don’t think most people outside of STEM do. The NSF CAREER award (grant) is viewed as a major stepping-stone towards tenure, and there is an expectation that most people will “get one” on their way to tenure at top universities. Yet the requirements are:

1. Write 15 pages, outlining your entire ambitious research agenda for the next 5 years, generally organized as 3 major thrusts with 2-3 paper-sized ideas each.

2. Write 2-3 pages about broader impact, which generally includes broadening participation goals explaining the new undergraduate classes, graduate classes, and extensive community outreach you will engage in.

3. You have about a 20% chance of being awarded this grant, and will hear in 6-9 months (~10% of your tenure clock!)

4. It’s for only $500k, which at most top STEM programs covers about a grad-student per year by the time all the indirect costs are included.

(You may guess that I am writing one right now). The idea that we basically have “prestige” grants that everyone agrees are way too much effort for way too little money blows my mind. And everyone goes along with it!

Other unintended consequences include that you’re effectively forbidden from proposing the same ideas to other funding agencies while the grants is under review, locking you out of other funding sources!

Imagine if I pitched a VC and they said “We’ll get back to you in six months and in the mean time you can’t pitch anyone else, and we’ll only give you enough for one employee for the next five years”. How could anyone do innovation in that kind of environment?!

TC again: Of those it is #4 that I find most astonishing.  That is some rate of overhead!  Keep in mind that throughout world history the costs of intermediation generally have run at about two percent of wealth.  And that is for intermediaries that have to assess the creditworthiness of borrowers, not just send money along.

Successful People are also Happy and Well-Adjusted

It’s perhaps a consequence of the just-world hypothesis that we think beautiful people can’t be smart, wealthy people must have few friends, and people with greatly successful careers must have sacrificed a happy home. There are, of course, many such examples but alas there are also many people who are ugly and dumb, poor and friendless and unsuccessful and dysfunctional. So, is there any correlation? Probably not.

We examined the wrecked-by-success hypothesis. Initially formalized by Sigmund Freud, this hypothesis has become pervasive throughout the humanities, popular press, and modern scientific literature. The hypothesis implies that truly outstanding occupational success often exacts a heavy toll on psychological, interpersonal, and physical well-being. Study 1 tested this hypothesis in three cohorts of 1,826 high-potential, intellectually gifted individuals. Participants with exceptionally successful careers were compared with those of their gender-equivalent intellectual peers with more typical careers on well-known measures of psychological well-being, flourishing, core self-evaluations, and medical maladies. Family relationships, comfort with aging, and life satisfaction were also assessed. Across all three cohorts, those deemed occupationally outstanding individuals were similar to or healthier than their intellectual peers across these metrics. Study 2 served as a constructive replication of Study 1 but used a different high-potential sample: 496 elite science/technology/engineering/mathematics (STEM) doctoral students identified in 1992 and longitudinally tracked for 25 years. Study 2 replicated the findings from Study 1 in all important respects. Both studies found that exceptionally successful careers were not associated with medical frailty, psychological maladjustment, and compromised interpersonal and family relationships; if anything, overall, people with exceptionally successful careers were medically and psychologically better off.

What the AEA does and does not cover

This new blog post by John Cochrane is too good to excerpt, but here is one bit of it anyway, noting two points that on the AEA program do not receive a whole lot of attention:

  • Education, another policy issue that should be the top of progressive concern. Choice vs. teachers unions and the horrible results, especially for minorities and the poor. On the top of things that entrench social and income inequality in the US, this is it, and teachers’ unions arguably bear much of the blame. But we should ask the question.
  • Since we’re veering off to social science, if we care about equity and gender, do facts on low income single motherhood not matter at all? In many states more than half of all children are born to single mothers on medicaid.

Definitely recommended.  Can you guess at what does receive a lot of attention?  By the way, who today is “the next John Cochrane” and where is he or she being trained?  That is what I would like to see discussed most of all.

Not From the Onion: Space X and the FAA

Before Space X can launch its Starship in support of NASA, the Department of Defense, and the greater goal of bringing humanity to the stars, the FAA has required that SpaceX must (among other requirements):

  • Prepar[e] a historical context report (i.e., historical narrative) of the historic events and activities of the Mexican War (1846–1848) and the Civil War (1861–1865) that took place in the geographic area associated with and including the Area of Potential Effects (APE).
  • [P]rovide $5,000 annually to enhance the existing TPWD Tackle Loaner Program. This funding may be used to purchase fishing equipment (rods, reels, and tackle boxes with hooks, sinkers, and bobbers) for use at existing, heavily visited sites and/or allow the program to expand to new locations.
  • Participate in wildlife photography introduction and instruction opportunities on‐site.
  • [M]ake an annual contribution of $5,000 to the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge Adopt‐an‐Ocelot Program within 3 months of the issuance of the BO and by March 1 of each year thereafter for the duration of the BO. Funds donated to the program are intended to pay for…Special events to raise awareness about the ocelot.

It’s hard to take our civilization seriously on some days.

Qubit teleportation between non-neighbouring nodes in a quantum network

Future quantum internet applications will derive their power from the ability to share quantum information across the network. Quantum teleportation allows for the reliable transfer of quantum information between distant nodes, even in the presence of highly lossy network connections. Although many experimental demonstrations have been performed on different quantum network platforms, moving beyond directly connected nodes has, so far, been hindered by the demanding requirements on the pre-shared remote entanglement, joint qubit readout and coherence times. Here we realize quantum teleportation between remote, non-neighbouring nodes in a quantum network. The network uses three optically connected nodes based on solid-state spin qubits. The teleporter is prepared by establishing remote entanglement on the two links, followed by entanglement swapping on the middle node and storage in a memory qubit. We demonstrate that, once successful preparation of the teleporter is heralded, arbitrary qubit states can be teleported with fidelity above the classical bound, even with unit efficiency. These results are enabled by key innovations in the qubit readout procedure, active memory qubit protection during entanglement generation and tailored heralding that reduces remote entanglement infidelities. Our work demonstrates a prime building block for future quantum networks and opens the door to exploring teleportation-based multi-node protocols and applications.

Here is the Nature paper, by S.L.N. Hermans,, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

The best arguments for and against the alien visitation hypothesis

Those are the subject of my latest Bloomberg column, about 2x longer than usual, WaPo link here.  Excerpt, from the segment on arguments against:

The case against visits by aliens:

1. Alien sightings remain relatively rare.

Let’s say alien drone probes can make it here. That would imply the existence of a very advanced civilization that can span great distances and command energy with remarkable efficiency. If that’s the case, why isn’t the sky full of aliens? Why aren’t there sightings from more than just military craft?

So the question is not so much, “Why don’t we see aliens?” as, “Why don’t we see more of them?” It is a perfectly valid (and embarrassing) question. On one hand, the aliens are impressive enough to send craft here. On the other, they seem constrained by scarcity.

Are we humans like those bears filmed in the Richard Attenborough nature programs, worthy of periodic visits from drone cameras but otherwise of little interest? The reality is that bears, and indeed most other animals, see humans quite often…

3. The alien-origin hypothesis relies too much on the “argument from elimination.”

The argument from elimination is a common rhetorical tactic, but it can lead you astray. You start by listing what you think are all the possibilities and rule them out one by one: Not the Russians, not sensor error, and so on — until the only conclusion left is that they are alien visitors. As Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes once said: “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

The argument from elimination works fine when there is a fixed set of possibilities, such as the murder suspects on a train. The argument is more dangerous when the menu of options is unclear in the first place. Proponents of the alien origin view spend too much time knocking down other hypotheses and not enough time making the case for the presence of aliens.

And this:

There is an argument that is often used against the alien-origin hypothesis, but in fact can be turned either way: If they are alien visitors, why don’t we have better and more definitive forms of evidence? Why is the available video evidence so hard to interpret? Why isn’t there a proverbial “smoking gun” of proof for an alien spacecraft?

This particular counter isn’t entirely convincing. First, the best evidence may be contained in the still-classified materials. Second, the same question can be used against non-alien hypotheses. If the sensor readings were just storms or some other mundane phenomena, surely that would become increasingly obvious over time with better satellite imaging.

The continued, ongoing and indeed intensifying mystery of the sightings seems to militate in favor of a truly unusual explanation. It will favor both the alien-visitation and the religious-miracle hypotheses. If it really were a flock of errant birds, combined with some sensor errors, we would know by now.


“If economists are so smart, why aren’t they rich?”

Peter Coy (NYT) considers a few hypotheses.  My take here is pretty simple.  Here are three of the main ways to beat market returns:

1. Build a new product and sell it successfully.

2. Assemble and maintain an especially talented team of quants.  (It is a separate but still relevant question at what scale you can do this and thus how rich you can become.)

3. “See” something about the market, at least for a limited period of time, that other people do not and invest accordingly.  That might be falling interest rates, the rise of consumer tech, or the persistence of low inflation (all until recently!).  Note that #3 requires you to have some money in the first place, and for your run to be long enough that you truly become rich.

Putting aside generic demographic factors, there is no particular reason to expect #1 or #2 to be much correlated with expertise in economics.

You might think that #3 is somewhat correlated with expertise in economics, but I don’t think it is very much.  You can pile up a bunch of ancillary reasons why economists might not be practically oriented enough to succeed at #3.  But even putting all that aside, economic theories of “regime change” just aren’t very good!  (It is comparative statics that we excel at, but that knowledge can be replicated and sold cheaply to the rest of the investment community, if it turns out to be valuable.)  So knowing economics won’t correlate much with success at strategy #3.  And some of those non-economists who succeed at #3 are just lucky anyway.

And that is why, dear reader, most economists are not very rich.  You are correct in downgrading their intelligence for these reasons, though there are still some regards in which they are quite smart, such as having ability at hypothesis testing, or perhaps having the ability to ask very good and penetrating questions about economic issues.

Mexicans die from the cold

We examine the impact of temperature on mortality in Mexico using daily data over the period 1998–2017 and find that 3.8 percent of deaths in Mexico are caused by suboptimal temperature (26,000 every year). However, 92 percent of weather-related deaths are induced by cold (<12 degrees C) or mildly cold (12–20 degrees C) days and only 2 percent by outstandingly hot days (>32 degrees C). Furthermore, temperatures are twice as likely to kill people in the bottom half of the income distribution. Finally, we show causal evidence that the Seguro Popular, a universal health care policy, has saved at least 1,600 lives per year from cold weather since 2004.

That is from a new paper in American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, authored by François Cohen and Antoine Dechezleprêtre.  Here are ungated copies.