Funding People Instead of Projects Allows Researchers to Nimbly Pivot in the Light of Unexpected Discoveries

(p. A2) Patrick Collison, the Irish-born co-founder of payments technology company Stripe Inc., has spent a lot of the past five years pondering the problem of declining scientific productivity.

. . .

Clearly, scientific productivity has something to do with how research is done, not how much. One culprit, in the view of Mr. Collison and many others, is that the institutions that fund science have become process-oriented, narrow-minded and risk-averse. Wary of failure, they favor established researchers pursuing narrowly focused, incremental ideas over younger scientists with more heterodox agendas.

. . .

Yet Mr. Collison criticizes the federal government for failing to bring a much deeper and eager pool of talent to bear on a multitude of pandemic challenges. Top virologists “were stuck on hold, waiting for decisions about whether they could repurpose their existing funding for this exponentially growing catastrophe,” he wrote in an essay last year with George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, and University of California, Berkeley bioengineering professor Patrick Hsu.

Sensing a need, the three in April, 2020 launched Fast Grants, $10,000 to $500,000 awards funded primarily by private donors and approved in 14 days or less.

. . .

When Messrs. Collison, Cowen and Tsu surveyed their recipients about their experiences with traditional funding, 57% told them they spent more than a quarter of their time on grant applications and 78% said they would change their research program a lot if they weren’t constrained in how they spent their current funding.

This reinforces a key insight from metascience, also known as the science of science, namely the value of curiosity-driven research. Heidi Williams, an economist at Stanford University and director of science policy at the Institute for Progress, said grants typically commit a scholar to complete a specific project, even if during the research the project proves less promising than expected.

. . .

In a 2009 paper, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Pierre Azoulay and his co-authors demonstrated the benefits of funding people over projects. Researchers backed by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which takes such an approach, produce far more widely cited papers—a metric of significance—than similar researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health. Drawing on those lessons, last year, Mr. Collison co-founded the Arc Institute to pre-fund scientists studying complex human diseases for renewable eight-year terms.

For the full commentary, see:

Greg Ip. “CAPITAL ACCOUNT; To Boost Growth, Rethink Science Funding.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, Nov. 18, 2022): A2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date November 17, 2022, and has the title “CAPITAL ACCOUNT; Stagnant Scientific Productivity Holding Back Growth.”)

The published version of Azoulay’s co-authored 2009 NBER working paper, mentioned above, is:

Azoulay, Pierre, Joshua S. Graff Zivin, and Gustavo Manso. “Incentives and Creativity: Evidence from the Academic Life Sciences.” RAND Journal of Economics 42, no. 3 (Fall 2011): 527-54.

Venturesome Heroes Who Made the “Miracle” of Aviation Possible

(p. 14) Aviation has become just another boring part of modern infrastructure. Some people are afraid of it. Most people endure it. Few people bother to look out the window for a view of Earth that was unimaginable to most of our ancestors, or to reflect on the miracle of technology, engineering and organization that daily airline operations represent. Before the pandemic, roughly three million passengers took flights to or from U.S. airports each day, which averages out to more than one billion passenger journeys per year. (Traffic has nearly returned to that level.) Over the past 13 years, through more than 10 billion passenger journeys, a total of two people have died in U.S. airline accidents.

Among the many virtues of John Lancaster’s delightful “The Great Air Race” is how vividly it conveys the entirely different world of aviation at the dawn of the industry, a century ago. Many airplanes in those days were literal death traps. A biplane known as the DH-4, used as a bomber by Allied forces in World War I, had its gas tank immediately behind the pilot in the cockpit. As Lancaster explains, “Even in relatively low-speed crashes, the tank sometimes wrenched free of its wooden cage, crushing the pilot against the engine.” To get a DH-4 properly balanced for landing, a co-pilot or passenger might have to leap out of the open cockpit and climb back to hang onto the tail. And this was one of the era’s most popular and successful models.

Some planes had no gas gauge, so pilots would learn they had run out of fuel only when the engine stopped. Just a tiny portion of the country was covered by charts; pilots’ navigation tools were a magnetic compass and their own eyes. (Mapping was one of the industries that aviation’s growth fostered.)

. . .

For readers familiar with modern U.S. aerospace pre-eminence — Boeing, despite its problems; governmental and private space programs; military aviation and corporate jets — perhaps the most startling aspect of American aviation a century ago is how uncertain its future seemed.

. . .

I have read a lot about aviation and the aircraft industry over the years, but almost everything in this tale was new to me. You might take it on your next airline flight, pause to look out the window and spare a thought for those who helped make it all possible.

For the full review, see:

James Fallows. “The Wild Blue Yonder.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, December 4, 2022): 14.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Nov. 15, 2022, and has the title “When Flying a Plane Was Thrilling — and Often Fatal.”)

The book under review is:

Lancaster, John. The Great Air Race: Glory, Tragedy, and the Dawn of American Aviation. New York: Liveright, 2022.

Lancet Editorial Praised Chinese Communists’ Covid Policy of “Restricting Public Freedoms”

(p. A17) China’s zero-Covid policies have recently come under criticism from public-health leaders—including those at the World Health Organization—who once held them up as a model for the West.

“China’s success rests largely with a strong administrative system that it can mobilise in times of threat, combined with the ready agreement of the Chinese people to obey stringent public health procedures,” the Lancet editorialized on March 7, 2020. Western countries, it added, “must abandon their fears of the negative short-term public and economic consequences that may follow from restricting public freedoms as part of more assertive infection control measures.”

That hasn’t worn well. The negative social and economic consequences of lockdowns in the West—from learning losses and destroyed small businesses to alcoholism and drug abuse—weren’t “short-term.” Nor were China’s draconian zero-Covid policies, which three years later are only slowly being eased.

For the full commentary, see:

Allysia Finley. “LIFE SCIENCE; Western Scientists Cheered On China’s Covid Repression.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Dec. 12, 2022): A17.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date December 11, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

Some Gain-of-Function Bat Coronavirus Research in Wuhan Was Done in Level 2 Biosafety Lab (Instead of Higher Level 3 or 4)

(p. A1) Some scientists and officials in the Biden administration are pushing for more oversight, globally, of risky bioresearch. One focus is laboratory work that enhances a pathogen or endows it with new properties—sometimes called “gain-of-function” research—which is often done to assess its potential to infect humans.

. . .

(p. A12) Scientists and government officials have debated the risks of gain-of-function research since at least 2011, when virologists genetically modified the deadly H5N1 avian-flu virus so it could spread among ferrets.

. . .

Dr. Collins and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the risks could be mitigated, and the information might accelerate efforts to develop vaccines or stop outbreaks.

. . .

Then in 2014, the U.S. government declared a pause to gain-of-function research on certain dangerous viruses and set out to develop a new set of rules following incidents including an unintentional exposure of lab workers to anthrax bacteria and a discovery of some decades-old overlooked vials of smallpox virus.

Some research was allowed to continue: work seeking to identify coronaviruses that might jump to humans. Ralph Baric at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and colleagues published a study of a bat virus closely related to SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, a disease that emerged in 2002 and killed nearly 800 people.

. . .

They inserted a portion of the bat virus into a SARS virus adapted for lab tests in mice—creating a novel pathogen—and sought to see whether it would infect human cells. It did, and in mice it caused disease, though less deadly than SARS.

Then, he and his colleagues published research showing that another virus closely related to SARS infected both mice and human airway cells in the lab. They warned it was “poised for human emergence.”

Dr. Baric has said he thinks SARS-CoV-2 most likely evolved naturally to infect humans, yet he joined the scientists who in May [2021] called for serious investigation of the lab-accident hypothesis as well.

Researchers in Wuhan used techniques similar to his to test whether eight SARS-like bat coronaviruses had the potential to infect human cells, according to a paper they published in 2017. It was part of an effort to find out how SARS-like bat viruses might make changes that would render them a danger to humans.

Biosafety levels in laboratory research range from 1—used in high-school or college labs for work that doesn’t pose a disease risk to humans—to 4, reserved for the most dangerous pathogens.

At least some of the bat-coronaviruses work at Wuhan was done in a level-2 lab, which some U.S. scientists say is too low a safety level for that kind of work.

For the full story, see:

Betsy McKay and Amy Dockser Marcus. “Virus Research Explodes, Igniting Worry.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021): A1 & A12.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date September 24, 2021, and has the title “Virus Research Has Exploded Since Covid-19 Hit. Is It Safe?”)

Elon’s “Musketeers” Will Gladly Commit to “Long Hours at High Intensity”

(p. A12) Your boss probably hasn’t demanded a loyalty pledge and almost certainly doesn’t own a rocket ship, but the person calling the shots at your company might be more like Elon Musk than you realize.

. . .

What is consistent—and alluring to some bosses—is the billionaire’s unapologetically high standard for employees. He spelled it out last week in an emailed ultimatum, saying that Twitter employees must commit to “long hours at high intensity” or leave with three months’ severance.

. . .

Managers who think the working world has gone soft in recent years, with all the talk of flexibility and work-life balance, say they envy Mr. Musk’s unfiltered style and share his craving for maximum effort—even if they wouldn’t act quite as forcefully as the world’s richest person.

. . .

. . . he is the rare CEO with a fan base—“Musketeers,” as this male-dominated bunch is known—and might be able to fill the company’s ranks with devotees who believe in his vision of a more freewheeling and profitable platform and are willing to grind.

. . .

“He can do whatever he wants, and everyone that has an opinion about it can piss off,” says Derek Grubbs, director of sales development at Crux Informatics, a software company. “If everybody exits from Twitter, there are plenty of other people who will be ready to enter because it pays well, and working for Elon Musk has a flair to it.”

For the full commentary, see:

Callum Borchers. “ON THE CLOCK; The Bosses Who Want to Emulate Elon Musk.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, November 23, 2022): A12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date November 22, 2022, and has the title “ON THE CLOCK; Is Elon Musk Your Boss’s Anger Translator?”)

Regulation of Truckers’ Driving Hours Caused Higher Speeds and More Fatalities

(p. A13) Falling asleep at the wheel is deadly. “It is obvious that a man cannot work efficiently or be a safe driver if he does not have an opportunity for approximately 8 hours sleep in 24,” the Interstate Commerce Commission declared in 1937. Ever since, federal rules have limited the work hours of interstate truckers. Also ever since, truckers, their employers and their customers have circumvented the rules when they stand in the way of making money.

Congress tackled the problem in 2012 by requiring long-distance truckers to track their hours with an “electronic logging device” connected to the engine. The mandatory rest breaks and the limits on drivers’ daily and weekly hours didn’t change, but the Transportation Department estimated that monitoring compliance with an ELD would avoid 1,844 crashes and save 26 lives annually.  . . .

. . .

In “Data Driven: Truckers, Technology, and the New Workplace Surveillance,” Karen Levy makes a provocative case against this approach.   . . .  Her concise and lively book will interest anyone concerned with the complicated business of regulation.

. . .

. . ., Ms. Levy raises important questions about regulation in general by examining the unintended effects of a well-meant initiative designed to address a serious safety problem. She reports on a 2021 study linking ELDs to greater compliance with regulations but no reduction in truck crashes. Fatalities in crashes involving large trucks actually increased, as drivers sped up to cover as many miles as they could during their permitted driving time.

For the full review, see:

Marc Levinson. “BOOKSHELF; Miles of Mandates.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date January 3, 2023, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Data Driven’ Review: Miles of Mandates.”)

The book under review is:

Levy, Karen. Data Driven: Truckers, Technology, and the New Workplace Surveillance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2022.

As Sole Owner Musk Was Able to Act Quickly to Cure Twitter’s “Systemic Paralysis”

(p. A17) Since Elon Musk purchased Twitter, he has undertaken a rapid restructuring that few large technology companies would attempt unless faced with an immediate liquidity crisis. Minutes after closing his purchase of the company, he started a process that reduced the workforce from 7,500 to 2,500 in 10 days.

Media pundits immediately slammed him, arguing that his slash-and-burn strategy would destroy one of the world’s most important social-media platforms—already in danger under the burden of $14 billion in debt. Much of this criticism came in the form of tweets, as the irony of using Twitter to denounce Twitter apparently escaped Mr. Musk’s critics. But the restructuring of Twitter won’t destroy the company.

Mr. Musk is trying to cure a degenerative corporate disease: systemic paralysis. Symptoms include cobwebs of corporate hierarchies with unclear reporting lines and unwieldy teams, along with work groups and positions that have opaque or nonsensical mandates. Paralyzed companies are often led by a career CEO who builds or maintains a level of bureaucracy that leads to declines in innovation, competitive stature and shareholder value.

Mr. Musk set his new tone immediately. He eliminated a 12-member team responsible for artificial-intelligence ethics in machine learning, the entire corporate communications department, and a headquarters commissary that cost $13 million a year (despite prior management’s pandemic decree that Twitter employees would be “remote forever”).

Three attributes give Mr. Musk a better chance of rebuilding Twitter into an innovative force in social media: He is an operator, an engineer and a sole owner.

For the full commentary, see:

Rob Wiesenthal. “Elon Musk Slashes Bureaucracy, Giving Twitter a Chance to Soar.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, Dec. 9, 2022): A17.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date December 8, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

FTX Fraudster Bankman-Fried Made $40 Million in Midterm Political Donations Which Mostly “Went to Democrats and Liberal-Leaning Groups”

(p. A1) FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried oversaw one of the biggest financial frauds in American history, a top federal prosecutor said in charging that the former chief executive stole billions of dollars from the crypto exchange’s customers while misleading investors and lenders.

. . .

(p. A6) Mr. Bankman-Fried is also accused of defrauding the Federal Election Commission starting in 2020 by conspiring with others to make illegal contributions to candidates and political committees in the names of other people.

He and his associates contributed more than $70 million to election campaigns in recent years, The Wall Street Journal previously reported. He personally made $40 million in donations ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, most of which went to Democrats and liberal-leaning groups.

For the full story, see:

Corinne Ramey, James Fanelli, Dave Michaels, Alexander Saeedy and Vicky Ge Huang. “FTX Founder Is Charged With Fraud.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Dec. 14, 2022): A1 & A6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Dec. 13, 2022, and has the title “FTX’s Sam Bankman-Fried Charged With Criminal Fraud, Conspiracy.”)

Workers Who Feel They Matter Are More Satisfied with Their Lives and Are “Less Likely to Quit”

(p. C5) So how do you know if your employees and co-workers feel that they matter? In a 2021 study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers developed a scale to measure mattering in the workplace. In online surveys involving nearly 1,800 full-time employees at a variety of companies, participants were asked to rate on a 5-point scale how much they agreed with statements such as “My work contributes to my organization’s success” and “The quality of my work makes a real impact on my organization.” Other statements had to do with feeling valued and recognized: “My organization praises my work publicly” and “My work has made me popular at my workplace.”

Participants were also asked about job satisfaction, recent raises or promotions, and whether they intended to leave their job. What the researchers found was that mattering isn’t only good for employee well-being, it’s also good for a company’s bottom line. Employee turnover is costly and disruptive, and “when employees feel like they matter to their organization, they are more satisfied with their jobs and life, more likely to occupy leadership positions, more likely to be rewarded and promoted and less likely to quit.”

. . .

Research by Dr. Prilleltensky and colleagues shows that being treated fairly increases workers’ sense of mattering, . . .

For the full commentary, see:

Jennifer Breheny Wallace. “The Power of Mattering at Work.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022): C5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date December 1, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

Jack Welch’s Protégés “Were Just Cost Cutters”

(p. 8) . . . in more than 100 conversations for “The Man Who Broke Capitalism,” my new book, from which this article is adapted, a broad range of people said some version of the same thing: While it has been more than two decades since Mr. Welch was C.E.O. of G.E., his legacy still affects millions of American households.

. . .

For a time in the early 2000s, five of the top 30 companies in the Dow Jones industrial average were run by men who had worked for Mr. Welch. “That’s why they got hired,” said William Conaty, G.E.’s longtime chief of human resources. “Because they had the playbook. They had the G.E. tool kit. And boards back then thought that was the answer.”

. . .

The Welch protégés who struck out on their own rarely fared well. At Home Depot, Albertson’s, Conseco, Stanley Works and many other companies, the same story seemed to repeat itself ad infinitum.

A G.E. executive was named C.E.O. of another company. News of the appointment sent the stock of that company soaring. The incoming leaders were lavished with riches when they took their new jobs, signing multimillion-dollar contracts that ensured them a gilded retirement, no matter how well they performed. A period of job cuts usually ensued, and profits sometimes rose for a few quarters, or even a few years. But inevitably, morale cratered, the business wobbled, the stock price sank and the Welch disciple was sent packing.

“A lot of G.E. leaders were thought to be business geniuses,” said Bill George, the former C.E.O. of Medtronic. “But they were just cost cutters. And you can’t cost cut your way to prosperity.”

For the full essay, see:

David Gelles. “Jack Welch and the Rise of C.E.O.s Behaving Badly.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sunday, May 22, 2022): 1 & 7-8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated June 27, 2022, and has the title “How Jack Welch’s Reign at G.E. Gave Us Elon Musk’s Twitter Feed.)

The essay quoted above is adapted from Gelles’s book:

Gelles, David. The Man Who Broke Capitalism: How Jack Welch Gutted the Heartland and Crushed the Soul of Corporate America―and How to Undo His Legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster 2022.

Racial Disparity in Wages Is Mostly Due to Racial Disparity in Skills

(p. A11) I was raised, in part, by my paternal grandmother—a phenomenal black woman born in 1925 who came of age during Jim Crow, attended Bethune-Cookman University in the early 1940s, and experienced both the promise and limitations of the civil-rights era when integrating schools in Florida in 1969. She did her best to teach sixth-graders subject-verb agreement minutes after being spat on by their parents. Her life’s journey provided unlimited content as we sat together for nearly three decades, stuck to the plastic slipcovers on her sofa, playing cards, drinking sweet tea, and talking uninhibitedly about race in America.

. . .

. . ., in graduate school, I read a 1995 paper titled “The Role of Premarket Factors in Black-White Wage Differences.” Using a nationally representative sample of more than 12,000 14- to 17-year-olds from 1979, Derek A. Neal and William R. Johnson estimated that blacks earned between 35% to 45% less than whites on average.

. . .

“We find,” they wrote in the abstract of their paper, “that this one test score explains all of the black-white wage gap for young women and much of the gap for young men.” With their approach, antiblack bias played no role in the divergent wages among women; a black woman with the same qualifications as a white woman made slightly more money. And it accounted for at most 29% of the racial difference among men, with 71% traceable to disparate performance on the AFQT. The AFQT itself was evaluated by the Pentagon, which found that black and white military recruits with similar AFQT scores performed similarly on the job—indicating no racial bias.

The paper felt like an attack on what I knew. An assault on all those conversations with my grandmother, which taught me that racism—present-tense racism—dictated black-white inequality.

. . .

I vented about my battle with Messrs. Neal and Johnson to a fellow graduate student at Penn State, a white guy from the cornfields of Southern Illinois.

. . .

I told him I was sure discrimination was a bigger factor than Messrs. Neal and Johnson were letting on, but “I just can’t get this data to cooperate.”

. . .

He pointed out how far I was straying from our Euler equations. How on any subject other than race, I would have never given in to such sloppy thinking.

. . .

Messrs. Neal and Johnson, as it turns out, aren’t bigots, and their conclusions have stood the test of time and my attempts to disprove them. I extended their analysis to unemployment, teen pregnancy, incarceration and other outcomes—all of which follow the same pattern.

. . .

Taken together, an honest review of the evidence suggests that current racial inequities are more a result of differences in skill than differences in treatment of those with the same skill.

. . .

A black kid who believes he will face daunting societal obstacles is likely to underinvest in trying to climb society’s rungs. Every black student in the country needs to know that his return on investment in education is, if anything, higher than for white students.

. . .

The solution isn’t to look away from discrimination. It does exist. But we also can’t point at every gap in outcomes and instantly conclude it’s racism. Prejudice must be measured rigorously. Statistically. Disparity doesn’t necessarily imply racism. It may feel omnipresent, but it isn’t all-powerful. Skills matter most.

For the full commentary, see:

Roland Fryer. “Disparity Doesn’t Necessarily Imply Racism.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, November 26, 2022): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date November 25, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

The Neal and Johnson paper discussed by Fryer in passages quoted above is:

Neal, Derek A., and William R. Johnson. “The Role of Premarket Factors in Black-White Wage Differences.” Journal of Political Economy 104, no. 5 (Oct. 1996): 869-95.

(Note: the reference is linked to the NBER draft of the paper, and not to the final published version, which can obtained from academic databases such as JSTOR.)