Apart from R&D, Scientists and Engineers May Improve Firm Processes

(p. B5) Companies with a higher proportion of scientists and engineers are more productive than their peers, even when those workers aren’t directly involved in the research-and-development tasks that drive the most obvious forms of innovation, a new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests.

. . .

Some 80% of industrial scientists and engineers work in roles outside of formal R&D, such as information technology and operations. Their knowledge and training is critical to firms’ ability to improve processes, fix broken systems and implement new technologies, says Richard Freeman, a Harvard University economist and co-author of the paper.

For the full story, see:

Lauren Weber. “Scientists Are Useful Beyond R&D Work.” The New York Times (Wednesday, June 28, 2017): B5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 27, 2017, and has the title “For a More Productive Workforce, Scientific Know-How Helps.”)

The published version of the Freeman co-authored paper mentioned above, is:

Barth, Erling, James C. Davis, Richard B. Freeman, and Andrew J. Wang. “The Effects of Scientists and Engineers on Productivity and Earnings at the Establishment Where They Work.” In U.S. Engineering in a Global Economy, edited by Richard B. Freeman and Hal Salzman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018, pp. 167 – 91.

Ridiculed Nathan Myhrvold Perseveres on Asteroids and Is Vindicated

Nathan Myhrvold has also been ridiculed on his entrepreneurial patent clearinghouse (called Intellectual Ventures), and on his geoengineering solution to global warming.

(p. D1) Thousands of asteroids are passing through Earth’s neighborhood all the time. Although the odds of a direct hit on the planet any time soon are slim, even a small asteroid the size of a house could explode with as much energy as an atomic bomb.

So scientists at NASA are charged with scanning the skies for such dangerous space rocks. If one were on a collision course with our planet, information about how big it is and what it’s made of would be essential for deflecting it, or calculating the destruction if it hits.
For the last couple of years, Nathan P. Myhrvold, a former chief technologist at Microsoft with a physics doctorate from Princeton, has roiled the small, congenial community of asteroid scientists by saying they know less than they think about these near-Earth objects. He argues that a trove of data from NASA they rely on is flawed and unreliable.
. . .
(p. D4) Dr. Myhrvold’s findings pose a challenge to a proposed NASA asteroid-finding mission called Neocam, short for Near-Earth Object Camera, which would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars. A congressional committee that controls NASA’s purse strings just included $10 million more in a budget bill for the development of Neocam.
. . .
When Dr. Myhrvold made his initial claims, the Neowise scientists made fun of a few errors like an equation that mixed up radius and diameter.
“It is too bad Myhrvold doesn’t have Google’s bug-finding bounty policy,” Dr. Wright told Scientific American. “If he did, I’d be rich.”
Dr. Mainzer also said at the time, “We believe at this point it’s best to allow the process of peer review — the foundation of the scientific process — to move forward.”
. . .
Earlier this year, Icarus published Dr. Myhrvold’s first paper on how reflected sunlight affects measurements of asteroids at the shorter infrared wavelengths measured by WISE. It has now accepted and posted a second paper last month containing Dr. Myhrvold’s criticisms of the NASA asteroid data.
. . .
When the scientists reported their findings, they did not include the estimates produced by their models, which would have given a sense of how good the model is. Instead they included the earlier measurements.
Other astronomers agreed that the Neowise scientists were not clear about what numbers they were reporting.
“They did some kind of dumb things,” said Alan W. Harris, a retired NASA asteroid expert who was one of the reviewers of Dr. Myhrvold’s second paper.
Dr. Myhrvold has accused the Neowise scientists of going into a NASA archive of planetary results, changing some of the copied numbers and deleting others without giving notice.
“They went back and rewrote history,” he said. “What it shows is even this far in, they’re still lying. They haven’t come clean.”
Dr. Harris said he did not see nefarious behavior by the Neowise scientists, but agreed, “That’s still weird.”
. . .
Dr. Myhrvold said NASA and Congress should put planning for the proposed Neocam spacecraft on hold, because it could suffer from the same shortfalls as Neowise. “Why does it get to avoid further scrutiny and just get money directly from Congress?” he asked.

For the full story, see:
Kenneth Chang. “A Collision Over Asteroids.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 19, 2018): D1 & D4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 14, 2018, and has the title “Asteroids and Adversaries: Challenging What NASA Knows About Space Rocks.”)

How Precision Metalwork Was Required for Industrial Revolution

(p. 16) In “The Perfectionists,” Simon Winchester celebrates the unsung breed of engineers who through the ages have designed ever more creative and intricate machines. He takes us on a journey through the evolution of “precision,” which in his view is the major driver of what we experience as modern life.
. . .
This expert working of metal is traced back to James Watt and his development of the steam engine. The first prototypes leaked copious amounts of steam and weren’t very efficient. The problem was that the piston didn’t fit exactly in its cylinder — small imperfections in the surfaces of both allowed pockets of air to escape. Watt enlisted the help of John “Iron Mad” Wilkinson, so called because of his expertise (even obsession) with metal. Wilkinson had previously patented a way to bore out precise cylinders for more accurate cannons, and he suggested the same method be applied to Watt’s ill-fitting system. It worked, and the improved engine allowed the conversion of energy to movement on an unprecedented scale. The Industrial Revolution, Winchester declares, could now begin.

For the full review, see:
Roma Agrawal. “Perfect Fit.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, June 17, 2018): 16.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date May [sic] 14, 2018, and has the title “Under Modernity’s Hood: Precision Engineering.”)

The book under review, is:
Winchester, Simon. The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2018.

Serial Breakthrough Innovators Have “Almost Maniacal Focus”

(p. C4) It’s 6 a.m., and I’m rushing around my apartment getting ready to fly to California to teach an innovation workshop, when my 10-year-old son looks at me with sad eyes and asks, “Why are you always busy?” My heart pounds, and that familiar knife of guilt and pain twists in my stomach. Then a thought flickers through my head: Does Jeff Bezos go through this?
I recently finished writing a book about innovators who achieved multiple breakthroughs in science and technology over the past two centuries. Of the eight individuals I wrote cases about, only one, Marie Curie, is a woman. I tried to find more, even though I knew in my scientist’s heart that deliberately looking for women would bias my selection process. But I didn’t find other women who met the criteria I had laid out at the beginning of the project.
. . .
The politically correct thing to say at this point is that expanding the roster of future innovators to include more women will require certain obvious changes in how we handle family life: Men and women should have more equal child-care responsibilities, and businesses (or governments) should make affordable, quality child care more accessible. But I don’t think it is as simple as that.
In my own case, I can afford more child care, but I don’t want to relinquish more of my caregiving to others. From the moment I first gave birth, I felt a deep, primal need to hold my children, nurture them and meet their needs. Nature is extremely clever, and she has crafted an intoxicating cocktail of oxytocin and other neurochemicals to rivet the attention of parents on their children.
The research on whether this response is stronger for mothers than for fathers is inconclusive. It is tough to compare the two, because there are strong gender differences in how hormones work. Historically, however, women have taken on a larger share of the caregiving responsibilities for children, and many (myself included) would not have it any other way.
Is such a view hopelessly retrograde, a rejection of hard-won feminist achievements? I don’t think so.
The need to connect with our children does not prevent women from being successful. There are many extremely successful women with very close relationships with their children. But it might get in the way of having the almost maniacal focus that the most famous serial breakthrough innovators exhibit.
I’m no Marie Curie, but I do have obsessive tendencies. If I did not have a family, I would routinely work until 4 a.m. if I had an interesting problem to chase down. But now I have children, and so at 5 p.m., I need to dial it back and try to refocus my attention on things like homework and making dinner. I cannot single-mindedly focus on my work; part of my mind must belong to the children.
This doesn’t mean that mothers cannot be important innovators, but it might mean that their careers play out differently. Their years of intense focus might start later, or they might ebb and surge over time. The more we can do to enable people to have nonlinear career paths, the more we will increase innovation among women–and productivity more generally.

For the full commentary, see:
Melissa Schilling. “Why Women Are Rarely Serial Innovators; A single-minded life of invention is hard to combine with family obligations. One solution: ‘nonlinear’ careers.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018): C4.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has a date of Feb. 2, 2018.)

Schilling’s commentary is related to his book:
Schilling, Melissa A. Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World. New York: PublicAffairs, 2018.

Equal Opportunity Gene Innovation

(p. R4) Kian Sadeghi has postponed homework assignments, sports practice and all the other demands of being a 17-year-old high-school junior for today. On a Saturday afternoon, he is in a lab learning how to use Crispr-Cas9, a gene-editing technique that has electrified scientists around the world–. . .
. . .
Crispr-Cas9 is easier, faster and cheaper than previous gene-editing techniques.
. . .
A do-it-yourself Crispr kit with enough material to perform five experiments gene-editing the bacteria included in the package is available online for $150. Genspace, the Brooklyn, N.Y., community lab where Mr. Sadeghi is learning how to use Crispr to edit a gene in brewer’s yeast, charges $400 for four intensive sessions. More than 80 people have taken the classes since the lab started offering them last year.
. . .
In the workshop, if the participants correctly edit the gene in brewer’s yeast, the cells will turn red. In between the prep work, the classmates swap stories on why they are there. Many have personal Crispr projects in mind and want to learn the technique.
Kevin Wallenstein, a chemical engineer, takes a two-hour train ride to the lab from his home in Princeton, N.J. Crispr is a hobby for him, he says. He wants to eventually use it to edit a gene in an edible fruit that he prefers not to name, to restore it to its historical color. “I always wondered what it would look like,” he says.
At the workshop, Mr. Wallenstein shares his Crispr goal with Will Shindel, Genspace’s lab director. Mr. Shindel is enthusiastic; he has started his own Crispr project, a longtime dream to make a spicy tomato. Both men say they aren’t looking to commercialize their ideas–but they would like to eat what they create someday, if they get permission from the lab. “I’m doing it for fun,” Mr. Shindel says.
When Mr. Sadeghi first wanted to try Crispr, the teenager emailed 20 scientists asking if they would be willing to let him learn Crispr in their labs. Most didn’t respond; those that did turned him down. So he did a Google search and stumbled upon Genspace. When he shared the lead with his science teacher at the Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, Essy Levy Sefchovich, she agreed to take the course with him.
When Mr. Shindel describes the steps of the experiment, Ms. Sefchovich takes notes. She is hoping to create a modified version of the yeast experiment so all her students can try Crispr in class.
Later, Mr. Sadeghi recounts that the hardest part of the day was handling the micropipette, the lab tool he used to mix small amounts of liquid. He says he still feels clumsy. Ms. Sefchovich reassures him he’ll get the hang of it; he just needs to practice.
“It’s like driving,” she tells him. “You learn the right feel.” Mr. Sadeghi doesn’t have his driver’s license yet. He figures he’ll do Crispr first.

For the full story, see:
Marcus, Amy Dockser. “JOURNAL REPORTS: HEALTH CARE; DIY Gene Editing: Fast, Cheap–and Worrisome; The Crispr technique lets amateurs enter a world that has been the exclusive domain of scientists.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., Feb. 27, 2017): R4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 26, 2017.)

“Hubs of Genius Do Not Arise from Government Planning”

(p. 13) In the early 1960s, the Soviet Union tried to make a version of Silicon Valley from scratch. A city called Zelenograd came to life on the outskirts of Moscow and was populated with all manner of brainy Soviet engineers. The hope — naturally — was that a concentration of clever minds coupled with ample funding would result in a wellspring of innovation and help Russia keep pace with California’s electronics boom. The experiment worked as well as one might expect. Few people will read this on a Mayakovsky-branded tablet or ­smartphone.
Many similar attempts have been made in the subsequent dec­ades to replicate Silicon Valley and its abundance of creativity and ingenuity. Such efforts have largely failed. It seems near impossible to will an exceptional place into being or to manufacture the conditions that lead to an outpouring of genius.
. . .
As in the case of Zelenograd, hubs of genius do not arise from government planning or by acting on the observations of a traveler. They’re happy accidents. To attempt to clone such things or pinpoint their characteristics is futile.

For the full review, see:
ASHLEE VANCE. “Smart Sites.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., JAN. 10, 2016): 13.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date JAN. 8, 2016, and has the title “”The Geography of Genius,’ by Eric Weiner.”)

The book under review, is:
Weiner, Eric. The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Under Communism Inventiveness Did Not Yield Economic Benefits

(p. A17) The Soviet Union may have pioneered in space with Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, but today Russia has less than 1% of the world commercial market in space telecommunications, the most successful commercial product so far stemming from space exploration. Russians may have won Nobel Prizes for developing the laser, but Russia today is insignificant in the production of lasers for the world market. Russians may have developed the first digital computer in continental Europe, but who today buys a Russian computer? By missing out on the multi-billion-dollar markets for lasers, computers and space-based telecommunications, Russia has suffered a grievous economic loss.
Accompanying this technical and economic failure was a human tragedy. Russian achievements in science and technology occurred in an environment of political terror. The father of the Russian hydrogen bomb, Andrei Sakharov, wrote in his memoirs that the research facility in which he worked was built by political prisoners, and each morning he looked out the window of his office to see them marching under armed guard to their construction sites. The “chief designer” of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolev, was long a prisoner who worked in a special prison laboratory, or sharashka. The dean of Soviet airplane designers, A.N. Tupolev, also labored for years as a prisoner in a special laboratory. Three of the Soviet Union’s Nobel Prize-winning physicists were arrested for alleged political disloyalty. Probably half of the engineers in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s were eventually arrested. In 1928 alone 648 members of the staff of the Soviet Academy of Sciences were purged.
When one looks at these statistics and at the genuine achievements of Soviet science, one is forced to ask basic questions about the relation of freedom to scientific progress.
. . .
Mr. Ings admirable effort to reach nonspecialized readers sometimes leads him to make exaggerated statements. He claims that we have “good agricultural and climate data for Russia going back over a thousand years” when in fact the data is incomplete and unreliable.
. . .
The claim that the Soviet Union was a scientific state brings Mr. Ings close, in his conclusion, to condemning science itself. He sees science and technology as causing a coming global ecological collapse, and he thinks that in some ways the demise of the Soviet Union was a preview of what we will all soon face. In one of his final sentences he says: “We are all little Stalinists now, convinced of the efficacy of science to bail us out of any and every crisis.” “Stalin and the Scientists” deserves attention, but a very critical form of attention. It is based on an impressive amount of study, and most readers will learn a great deal. It is, however, incomplete and overdrawn.

For the full review, see:
LOREN GRAHAM. “BOOKSHELF; No Good Deed Went Unpunished.” The Wall Street Journal (Tues., Feb. 21, 2017): A17.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 20, 2017, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; Science Under Stalin.”)

The book under review, is:
Ings, Simon. Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy, 1905-1953. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017.