Fuck Academic Research

My mom is a very accomplished scientist. She has authored something like 400 published peer reviewed papers, tons of book chapters, edited a book series and been a senior editor at one of the top journals in her field for decades. She was an independent investigator in academia for 16 years, then went into industry and was a vice president at a major pharmaceutical company. Now she has a senior role at the National Cancer Institute. Her view on academic research is interesting. Her feeling is that  while academic scientists “try their best” for the most part they don’t have the skills or tools to do real cutting-edge science.  Real rigorous science is done in industry, but not much in academia.

The always amazing Scott Alexander recently posted a literature review on adult human neurogenesis. After showing how the newest research shows that the whole field has been built on a spurious base he writes:

“the reason I feel compelled to dabble in this subject anyway is that I don’t feel like anyone else is conveying the level of absolute terror we should be feeling right now. As far as I can tell, this is the most troubling outbreak of the replication crisis so far. And it didn’t happen in a field like social psychology which everyone already knows is kind of iffy. It happened in neuroscience, with dramatic knock-on effects on medicine, psychology, and psychiatry.

I feel like every couple of months we get a result that could best be summed up as “no matter how bad you thought things were, they’re actually worse”. And then things turn out to be even worse than that. “

My response to my mom’s judgement on the quality of academic science is that the government should stop giving these people so much money to waste. My mother’s response has always been that that would be disastrous because so many scientists would be out of work. The point of scientific grants are not to produce knowledge that will benefit the people who pay for it. Its has become just a jobs program for people who like playing scientist. It also allows them to train the next generation of “scientists” to spend their lives writing grant proposals to do invalid research and write papers that no one will read.

Grants to academic scientists are somewhere around $40 Billion/year, and have been substantial since the 1960s. All together the federal government has spent $Trillions on academic research with no accounting on the value allegedly produced.

In Tyler Cowen’s seminal book “The Great Stagnation” he points to some time around 1973 as when economic growth really slowed down.  A lot of things happened in the early 70s. The Bretton Woods system fell apart. China hit its nadir and started to rebound. OPEC imposed their embargo that created a massive gasoline shortage.  I think all these things contributed to why the early 70s was a turning point (in the wrong direction) for the US. But another thing that happened was that Nixon declared his War on Cancer.  That was what drove my mom to pick cancer as her field. There was suddenly a lot more money to do academic science. The 60s and 70s was when the government really started to put big money into academic research. Is it just a coincidence that the rate of innovation started to crater at the same time?

Since the 1960s we have created this path that smart people can take to do “research that interests them” rather than research that produces enough results to be worth paying for by the private market. Before then, non-economic research was limited to people who had a day job or independent means. There is a myth that technology comes from theory but very often theory comes from observing technology that has been derived from incremental tinkering. As Taleb wrote in Antifragile:

“Scranton showed that we have been building and using jet engines in a completely trial-and-error experimental manner, without anyone truly understanding the theory. Builders needed the original engineers who knew how to twist things to make the engines work. Theory came later, in a lame way, to satisfy the intellectual bean counter.” 

By taking a lot of the smartest people out of the role of tinkering technological development, and putting them into the role of developing “fundamental knowledge” without good incentives to get stuff right, maybe we have slowed the whole process way down. Everyone, pretty much across the whole political spectrum, thinks more money for research creates more progress and faster growth. The budget that Trump signed a few weeks ago included a 10% increase in funding for NIH and republicans and democrats both counted that as a win. What if they are all just wrong? What if the sclerotic, bureaucratic and masturbatory (the endless circle jerk of “peer review”) system of academic research is just sucking brain power out of the dynamic and innovative parts of our society? What if we could just shut the whole thing down and get an immediate boost in the rate of scientific advancement? Isn’t that a chance worth taking?


P.S. The one area situation where government money can speed up research is if the capital necessary for tinkering is just beyond the capabilities of the private sector. I think fusion is an example where $10s of billions must be spent just to start trying stuff out. I think that is an appropriate place for publicly funded scientific research as I have written about here.

Pig Skin In The Game

I Just finished reading “Skin In The Game” by Nassim Taleb. It is about the importance and consequences of people being exposed to the downside of the risks they take. Like all his books it’s a fun read that is also profound. It’s a little on the light side and not quite as good as Antifragile, in my opinion, but still highly recommended.

In SITG Taleb describes a “Bob Rubin trade” as a class of bets in which you keep the upside but somehow transfer the downside to others. The classic example is the banker who gets bonuses for years doing some activity that will eventually blow up,  and then loses more money than he ever made when the blow up happens but gets to walk away with the bonuses.

Another example Taleb brings up a lot is the pundit, adviser or politician who advocates in lofty terms for foreign interventions but doesn’t have to live with the consequences. No one who talked up spreading democracy to the middle east in the 2000s ended up moving to Mosul.

On a smaller level I think a good example of the Bob Rubin trade is the cowardly cop. Police officers aren’t paid to take crazy risks, but they are paid to take reasonable risks in order to decrease the risks that the public face. Cowardly cops are those that transfer the risks that they are supposed to be taking back to the public.

During the Parkland shooting, the cop that hid outside, rather going to seek out source of gunfire was clearly a cowardly cop. It was his responsibility to try to find and confront the shooter, but given the terrible luck to actually be the cop on the scene when someone started shooting, he chose to let the unarmed students and teachers deal with it and save his own skin.  Now he is retired and collecting his pension in classic Bob Rubin style.

A police officer who fails to confront a threat deserves the approbation that they get, but they aren’t the worst variety of cowardly cop.  All they are doing is failing to do the job they were paid for. They aren’t actively putting the public at risk.

The worst cowardly cops are those that decide that when confronted with any perception of a threat they will prefer a “false positive” to a “false negative” response. In other words, they prefer to kill an innocent than take the risk of dying themselves, and so they can create a deadly situation where none existed. That is the situation we have recently seen with Stephon Clark  and seen many times with people like Philando Castile and many, many others.

We are not paying police like that to risk their lives for us. We are paying them to risk our lives for themselves. Any police officer that would prefer to shoot an innocent than to get shot is not doing the job. They are creating more risk than they are taking and making society worse off. They are also creating a horrendous negative externality by discrediting the majority of police who are brave and do their honest best to shoulder the responsibilities that they have voluntarily accepted.

The standard right now is that the cop may shoot whenever they can reasonably determine that they are at risk. They don’t have to 100% be at risk, just make the reasonable judgement that they are at risk. This legal standard invites false positives and risk transfer.  As long as the cop can honestly say that they thought the cell phone might have been a gun (and perhaps 1 out of 100 times it actually would be) then they face no liability. That policy transfers all the risk to the (probably) innocent person. Instead, the standard should be that no reasonable person should think that they are safe. The burden to determine that they are actually in danger should be on the cops since they are the ones who volunteered to take that burden!

We should laud cops as heroes and encourage them to be heroes. We shouldn’t be providing them with every legal incentive to become Bob Rubins.