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.

A Dog (But Not A.I.) Can Put Together What It Learns in Two Separate Contexts, and Apply It in a Third Context

(p. 6) . . . an engineer named Blake Lemoine . . . worked on artificial intelligence at Google, specifically on software that can generate words on its own — what’s called a large language model. He concluded the technology was sentient; his bosses concluded it wasn’t.

. . .

There is no evidence this technology is sentient or conscious — two words that describe an awareness of the surrounding world.

That goes for even the simplest form you might find in a worm, said Colin Allen, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh who explores cognitive skills in both animals and machines. “The dialogue generated by large language models does not provide evidence of the kind of sentience that even very primitive animals likely possess,” he said.

Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology who is part of the A.I. research group at the University of California, Berkeley, agreed. “The computational capacities of current A.I. like the large language models,” she said, “don’t make it any more likely that they are sentient than that rocks or other machines are.”

. . .

(p. 7) “A conscious organism — like a person or a dog or other animals — can learn something in one context and learn something else in another context and then put the two things together to do something in a novel context they have never experienced before,” Dr. Allen of the University of Pittsburgh said. “This technology is nowhere close to doing that.”

For the full story, see:

Cade Metz. “A.I. Does Not Have Thoughts, No Matter What You Think.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sunday, August 7, 2022): 6-7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Aug. 11 [sic.], 2022, and has the title “A.I. Is Not Sentient. Why Do People Say It Is?”)

Chargers for Electric Vehicles “Are Often Broken”

(p. B1) The electric vehicle revolution is nearly here, but its arrival is being slowed by a fundamental problem: The chargers where people refuel these cars are often broken. One recent study found that about a quarter of the public charging outlets in the San Francisco Bay Area, where electric cars are commonplace, were not working.

. . .

Many sit in parking lots or in (p. B3) front of retail stores where there is often no one to turn to for help when something goes wrong. Problems include broken screens and buggy software. Some stop working midcharge, while others never start in the first place.

Some frustrated drivers say the problems have them second-guessing whether they can fully abandon gas vehicles, especially for longer trips.

“Often, those fast chargers have real maintenance issues,” said Ethan Zuckerman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who has owned a Chevrolet Bolt for several years. “When they do, you very quickly find yourself in pretty dire straits.”

In the winter of 2020, Mr. Zuckerman was commuting about 150 miles each way to a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The cold winter weather can reduce the driving range of electric cars, and Mr. Zuckerman found himself needing a charge on the way home.

He checked online and found a station, but when he pulled up to it, the machine was broken. Another across the street was out, too, he said. In desperation, Mr. Zuckerman went to a nearby gas station and persuaded a worker there to run an extension cord to his car.

“I sat there for two and a half hours in the freezing cold, getting enough charge so that I could limp to the town of Lee, Mass., and then use another charger,” he said. “It was not a great night.”

The availability and reliability of public chargers remains a problem even now, he said.

. . .

There are few rigorous studies of charging stations, but one conducted this year by Cool the Earth, an environmental nonprofit in California, and David Rempel, a retired professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley, found that 23 percent of 657 public charging stations in the Bay Area were broken. The most common problems were that testers could not get chargers to accept payment or initiate a charge. In other cases, screens went blank, were not responsive or displayed error messages.

“Here we have actual field data, and the results, frankly, were very concerning,” said Carleen Cullen, executive director of Cool the Earth.

. . .

At most gas stations, a clerk is usually on duty and can see when some problems arise. With chargers, vandalism or other damage can be more difficult to track.

“Where there’s a screen, there’s a baseball bat,” said Jonathan Levy, EVgo’s chief commercial officer.

For the full story, see:

Niraj Chokshi. “E.V. Hassle: Locating A Charger That Works.” The New York Times (Tuesday, August 16, 2022): B1 & B3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the print version, and has the title “A Frustrating Hassle Holding Electric Cars Back: Broken Chargers.”)

M.R.I. Inventor and Entrepreneur Earned Patent, But Was Denied Nobel Prize

(p. B10) Dr. Raymond Damadian, who built the first magnetic resonance imaging scanner, which revolutionized doctors’ ability to diagnose cancer and other illnesses — but who, to his dismay, saw the Nobel Prize for the science behind it go to two others — died on Aug. 3 [2022] at his home in Woodbury, N.Y.

. . .

The vision of scanning the human body without radiation came to Dr. Damadian in the late 1960s, he said, when he was working on nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy — which, until then, had been used to identify the chemical makeup of the contents of a test tube — at Downstate Medical Center (now SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University) in Brooklyn.

Working with rats, he discovered that when tissues were placed in a magnetic field and hit with a pulse of radio waves, cancerous ones emitted distinctly different radio signals than healthy ones.

He published his findings in 1971 in the journal Science and was granted a patent three years later for an “apparatus and method for detecting cancer in tissue.” It took 18 months to build the first M.R.I., originally known as a nuclear magnetic resonance scanner, or N.M.R. Its first scan, on July 3, 1977, was of Lawrence Minkoff, one of Dr. Damadian’s assistants — a vivid and colorful image of his heart, lungs, aorta, cardiac chamber and chest wall.

“Having birthed the original idea of the N.M.R. body scanner, we were intent on being the first to accomplish it,” Dr. Damadian said in the book “Gifted Mind: The Dr. Raymond Damadian Story, Inventor of the M.R.I.,” published in 2015, which he wrote with Jeff Kinley. “Failing to do so meant we might be denied the recognition for the original idea.”

But the technology behind the M.R.I. had several fathers.

Acknowledging that he was inspired by Dr. Damadian’s work, Paul C. Lauterbur of the State University of New York at Stony Brook had figured out how to translate the radio signals bounced off tissue into images. And Peter Mansfield of the University of Nottingham in England had developed mathematical techniques for analyzing the data, making the process more practical.

Employing the techniques he pioneered, Dr. Damadian’s company, Fonar, based in Melville, N.Y., produced the first commercial scanner in 1980.

. . .

While working at Downstate and later at Fonar, Dr. Damadian was aware of Dr. Lauterbur, a chemist who was also working on M.R.I. imaging and with whom he shared the National Medal of Technology.

In “Gifted Mind,” Dr. Damadian acknowledged that Dr. Lauterbur “realized that the N.M.R. signal differences in diseased and normal tissues I discovered could be used to construct a picture (image).”

But in 2003, when Dr. Lauterbur and Dr. Mansfield won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their contributions to the science of magnetic resonance imaging, Dr. Damadian was enraged.

. . .

A year later, Dr. Damadian received one of the two annual Bower Awards given by the Franklin Institute, a science museum in Philadelphia. He was cited for his business leadership.

“There is no controversy in this,” said Dr. Bradford A. Jameson, a professor of biochemistry at Drexel University who was the chairman of the committee that chose the winners. “If you look at the patents in this field, they’re his.”

. . .

Dr. Damadian continued to innovate. He created open M.R.I. machines, which alleviate the claustrophobia patients can experience during scans when they are moved slowly through a tight tunnel, as well as mobile and stand-up scanners.

In recent years, he was focused on research that included imaging cerebral spinal fluid as it flowed to the brain.

For the full obituary, see:

Richard Sandomir. “Raymond Damadian, 86, Is Dead; Creator of the First M.R.I. Scanner.” The New York Times (Thursday, August 18, 2022): B10.

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

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Aug. 19, 2022, and has the title “Raymond Damadian, Creator of the First M.R.I. Scanner, Dies at 86.” Where there is a minor difference between the online and print versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

Damadian’s biography mentioned above is:

Kinley, Jeff, and Raymond Damadian. Gifted Mind: The Dr. Raymond Damadian Story, Inventor of the MRI. Green Forest, AZ: Master Books, 2015.

Increasing Tax Rates Will Reduce Venture Funding for Cancer Research

(p. A17) In his last year as vice president, Joe Biden launched a “cancer moonshot” to accelerate cures for the disease. It was short-lived, but he did help negotiate an agreement in Congress easing regulation of breakthrough drugs and medical devices.

In February [2022], President Biden revived the initiative, setting a goal of reducing cancer death rates by at least 50% over the next 25 years. It’s ambitious but may be achievable given how rapidly scientific knowledge and treatments are advancing. Other Biden policies, however, are at odds with the goals of this one.

Two pharmaceutical breakthroughs were announced only last week that could save tens of thousands of lives each year and redefine cancer care. Yet the tax hikes and drug-price controls that the Biden administration is pitching would discourage the private investment that has delivered these potential cures.

. . .

Oncologists were blown away by the results reported last week in the New England Journal of Medicine: All 12 patients receiving the drug achieved complete remission after six months of treatment. None needed surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. Although some may relapse, the 100% success rate is unprecedented even for a small trial.

. . .

Last week AstraZeneca in partnership with Daiichi Sankyo reported that Enhertu reduced the risk of death by 36% in patients with metastatic breast cancer with low HER2 and by half for the subset who were hormone-receptor negative. These results blow the outcomes for other metastatic breast-cancer therapies out of the water.

. . .

These treatment breakthroughs aren’t happening because of government programs. They’re happening because pharmaceutical companies have invested decades and hundreds of billions of dollars in drug research and development. It typically takes 10.5 years and $1.3 billion to bring a new drug to market. About 95% of cancer drugs fail.

This is important to keep in mind as Mr. Biden and Democrats in Congress push for Medicare to “negotiate”—i.e., cap—drug prices and raise taxes on corporations and investors. The large profits that drugmakers notch from successful drugs are needed to reward shareholders for their investment risk and encourage future investment. Capital is mobile.

Mr. Biden’s proposal to increase the top marginal individual income-tax rates, including on capital gains, would punish venture capitalists who seed biotech startups, which do most early-stage research on cancer drugs and are often acquired by large drugmakers. At the same time, his proposed corporate global minimum tax would raise costs of intellectual property, which is often taxed at lower rates abroad.

There aren’t many things to celebrate nowadays, but biotech innovation is one. Let’s hope the president doesn’t kill his own cancer moonshot.

For the full commentary see:

Allysia Finley. “Biden May Stop His Cancer Moonshot’s Launch.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, June 16, 2022): A17.

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

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date June 15, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

Well-Financed Fusion Startup Claims to Be a Year Away From Energy Break-Even Point

(p. B4) Zap Energy, a fusion energy start-up working on a low-cost path to producing electricity commercially, said last week that it had taken an important step toward testing a system its researchers believe will eventually produce more electricity than it consumes.

. . .

While many competing efforts use powerful magnets or bursts of laser light to compress a plasma in order to initiate a fusion reaction, Zap is pursuing an approach pioneered by physicists at the University of Washington and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

It relies on a shaped plasma gas — an energized cloud of particles that is often described as a fourth state of matter — that is compressed by a magnetic field generated by an electrical current as it flows through a two-meter vacuum tube. The technique is known as “sheared flow Z-pinch.”

. . .

Advances in stabilizing the magnetic field that is generated by the flowing plasma made by physicists at the University of Washington led the group to establish Zap Energy in 2017. The company has raised more than $200 million, including a series of investments from Chevron.

Recent technical advances in fusion fuels and in advanced magnets have led to a sharp increase in private investment, according to the Fusion Industry Association. There are 35 fusion companies globally, and private funding has risen above $4 billion, including from well-known technology investors like Sam Altman, Jeff Bezos, John Doerr, Bill Gates and Chris Sacca. Mr. Gates and Mr. Sacca invested in Zap’s most recent funding round.

. . .

The Zap Energy physicists and executives said in interviews last week that they believed they were within a year of proving that their approach was capable of reaching the long-sought-after energy break-even point.

If they do, they will have succeeded where an array of research efforts — going back to the middle of the last century — have failed.

The Zap Energy physicists said they had made the case for the “scaling” power of their approach to produce a steep increase in neutrons in a series of peer-reviewed technical papers that documented computer-generated simulations they would soon begin to test.

For the full story, see:

John Markoff. “A Seattle Start-Up Claims a Big Step For Fusion Energy.” The New York Times (Thursday, June 23, 2022): B4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 22, 2022, and has the title “A Big Step Toward Fusion Energy Is Hailed by a Seattle Start-Up.”)

“People Are Now Coming to Their Own Conclusions About Covid”

(p. 3) Lauren Terry, 23, thought she would know what to do if she contracted Covid-19. After all, she manages a lab in Tucson that processes Covid tests.

But when she developed symptoms on Christmas Eve, she quickly realized she had no inside information.

“I first tried to take whatever rapid tests I could get my hands on,” Ms. Terry said. “I bought some over the counter. I got a free kit from my county library. A friend gave me a box. I think I tried five different brands.” When they all turned up negative, she took a P.C.R. test, but that too, was negative.

With clear symptoms, she didn’t believe the results. So she turned to Twitter. “I was searching for the Omicron rapid test efficacy and trying to figure out what brand works on this variant and what doesn’t and how long they take to produce results,” she said. (The Food and Drug Administration has said that rapid antigen tests may be less sensitive to the Omicron variant but has not identified any specific tests that outright fail to detect it.) “I started seeing people on Twitter say they were having symptoms and only testing positive days later. I decided not to see anybody for the holidays when I read that.”

She kept testing, and a few days after Christmas she received the result she had expected all along.

Though it’s been almost two years since the onset of the pandemic, this phase can feel more confusing than its start, in March 2020. Even P.C.R. tests, the gold standard, don’t always detect every case, especially early in the course of infection, and there is some doubt among scientists about whether rapid antigen tests perform as well with Omicron. And, the need for a 10-day isolation period was thrown into question after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that some people could leave their homes after only five days.

“The information is more confusing because the threat itself is more confusing,” said David Abramson, who directs the Center for Public Health Disaster Science at the N.Y.U. School of Global Public Health. “We used to know there was a hurricane coming at us from 50 miles away. Now we have this storm that is not well defined that could maybe create flood or some wind damage, but there are so many uncertainties, and we just aren’t sure.”

Many people are now coming to their own conclusions about Covid and how they should behave. After not contracting the virus after multiple exposures, they may conclude they can take more risks. Or if they have Covid they may choose to stay in isolation longer than the C.D.C. recommends.

And they aren’t necessarily embracing conspiracy theories. People are forming opinions after reading mainstream news articles and tweets from epidemiologists; they are looking at real-life experiences of people in their networks.

For the full story, see:

Alyson Krueger. “Covid Experts, the Self-Made Kind.” The New York Times, SundayStyles Section (Sunday, January 23, 2022): 3.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date January 21, 2022, and has the title “So You Think You’re a Covid Expert (but Are You?).”)

Mars Can Be Terraformed to Reduce Costs of Colonization

(p. D5) Since joining NASA in 1980, Jim Green has seen it all. He has helped the space agency understand Earth’s magnetic field, explore the outer solar system and search for life on Mars. As the new year arrived on Saturday, he bade farewell to the agency.

Over the past four decades, which includes 12 years as the director of NASA’s planetary science division and the last three years as its chief scientist, he has shaped much of NASA’s scientific inquiry, overseeing missions across the solar system and contributing to more than 100 scientific papers across a range of topics. While specializing in Earth’s magnetic field and plasma waves early in his career, he went on to diversify his research portfolio.

. . .

Ahead of a December [2021] meeting of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans, Dr. Green spoke about some of this wide-ranging work and the search for life in the solar system. Below are edited and condensed excerpts from our interview.

. . .

    You’ve previously suggested it might be possible to terraform Mars by placing a giant magnetic shield between the planet and the sun, which would stop the sun from stripping its atmosphere, allowing the planet to trap more heat and warm its climate to make it habitable. Is that really doable?

Yeah, it’s doable. Stop the stripping, and the pressure is going to increase. Mars is going to start terraforming itself. That’s what we want: the planet to participate in this any way it can. When the pressure goes up, the temperature goes up.

The first level of terraforming is at 60 millibars, a factor of 10 from where we are now. That’s called the Armstrong limit, where your blood doesn’t boil if you walked out on the surface. If you didn’t need a spacesuit, you could have much more flexibility and mobility. The higher temperature and pressure enable you to begin the process of growing plants in the soils.

There are several scenarios on how to do the magnetic shield. I’m trying to get a paper out I’ve been working on for about two years. It’s not going to be well received. The planetary community does not like the idea of terraforming anything. But you know. I think we can change Venus, too, with a physical shield that reflects light. We create a shield, and the whole temperature starts going down.

For the full story, see:

Jonathan O’Callaghan, interviewer. “Inhabiting Mars? He Calls It ‘Doable.’” The New York Times (Tuesday, January 4, 2022): D5.

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

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 2, 2021, and has the title “NASA’s Retiring Top Scientist Says We Can Terraform Mars and Maybe Venus, Too.” The first three paragraphs, and the block-indented sentence and question, are by the interviewer Jonathan O’Callaghan. The answer after the question is by Jim Green.)

Carolyn Shoemaker Developed Tacit Knowledge of Presence of Comets and Asteroids

(p. B6) Carolyn Shoemaker, who for more than a decade managed a telescopic camera with her husband from a high-altitude observatory in California and became widely regarded, without academic training, as the world’s foremost detector of comets and asteroids, died on Aug. 13 [2021] at a hospital in Flagstaff, Ariz.

. . .

In the afternoons, Dr. Shoemaker would take the film they had used the previous night and develop it in a darkroom, then turn over the negatives to Ms. Shoemaker. Using a stereoscope, she would compare exposures of the same block of sky at different times. If anything moved against the relatively fixed background of stars, it would appear to float in the viewing device’s eyepiece.

Ms. Shoemaker was charged with discerning what was the grain of the film (and perhaps dust on it) and what was an actual image of light emitted by an object hurtling through space. “With time,” she wrote, “I saw fainter and fainter objects.”

It took a few years before she found her first new comet, in 1983. By 1994 she had discovered, in addition to hundreds of asteroids, 32 comets, a number considered by the United States Geological Survey and others to represent the world record at the time.

. . .

One comet, known as Shoemaker-Levy 9 (named in part for their associate David Levy), had stood out from the rest. Rather than making a lonely journey through the cosmic vacuum, Shoemaker-Levy 9 was on a collision course with Jupiter.

. . .

“Carolyn Shoemaker is one of the most revered and respected astronomers in history,” Jennifer Wiseman, a senior scientist overseeing the Hubble Space Telescope, said by phone. “Her discoveries, her tenacious care in how she did her work — those things have created a legacy and a reputation that has inspired people who have come into the field after her.”

. . .

. . . scientists still depend on methods that Ms. Shoemaker perfected.

“She and her colleagues set the stage for how to identify what we would call minor bodies in our solar system, such as comets and asteroids,” Dr. Wiseman said. “We still use the technique of looking for the relatively fast transverse motions of comets and asteroids in our own solar system, as compared to the slower or more fixed position of stars.”

For the full obituary, see:

Alex Traub. “Carolyn Shoemaker, 92, a Stargazer Who Spotted Comets and Asteroids.” The New York Times (Monday, September 6, 2021): B6.

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

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Sept. 4, 2021, and has the title “Carolyn Shoemaker, Hunter of Comets and Asteroids, Dies at 92.”)

Federal Central Planners (and Cronies) Spent Hundreds of Millions of Strategic National Stockpile Funds on Emergent’s Outdated, Marginal Anthrax Vaccine, Leaving N95 Masks Unfunded

(p. 1) WASHINGTON — A year ago, President Donald J. Trump declared a national emergency, promising a wartime footing to combat the coronavirus. But as Covid-19 spread unchecked, sending thousands of dying people to the hospital, desperate pleas for protective masks and other medical supplies went unanswered.

Health workers resorted to wearing trash bags. Fearful hospital officials turned away sick patients. Governors complained about being left in the lurch. Today the shortage of basic supplies, alongside inadequate testing and the slow vaccine rollout, stands as a symbol of the broken federal response to a worldwide calamity that has killed more than a half-million Americans.

Explanations about what went wrong have devolved into partisan finger pointing, with Mr. Trump blaming the Obama administration for leaving the cupboard bare, and Democrats in Congress accusing Mr. Trump of negligence.

An investigation by The New York Times found a hidden explanation: Government purchases for the Strategic National Stockpile, the country’s emergency medical reserve where such equipment is kept, have largely been driven by the demands and financial interests of a handful of biotech firms that have specialized in products that address terrorist threats rather than infectious disease.

Chief among them is Emergent BioSolutions, a Maryland-based company now manufacturing Covid-19 vaccines for AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. Last year, as the pandemic raced across the country, the government paid Emergent $626 million for products that included vaccines to fight an entirely different threat: a terrorist attack using anthrax.

Throughout most of the last decade, the government has spent nearly half of the stockpile’s half-billion-dollar annual budget on the company’s anthrax vaccines, The Times found. That left the government with less money to buy supplies needed in a pandemic, despite repeatedly being advised to do so.

Under normal circumstances, Emergent’s relationship with the federal stockpile would be of little public interest — an obscure contractor in an obscure corner of the federal bureaucracy applying the standard tools of Washington, like well-connected lobbyists and campaign contributions, to create a business heavily dependent on taxpayer dollars.

Security concerns, moreover, keep most information about (p. 18) stockpile purchases under wraps. Details about the contracts and inventory are rarely made public, and even the storage locations are secret.

But with the stockpile now infamous for what it doesn’t have, The Times penetrated this clandestine world by examining more than 40,000 pages of documents, some previously undisclosed, and interviewing more than 60 people with inside knowledge of the stockpile.

Former Emergent employees, government contractors, members of Congress, biodefense experts and current and former officials from agencies that oversee the stockpile described a deeply dysfunctional system that contributed to the shocking shortages last year. Their accounts were confirmed by federal budget and contracting records, agency planning documents, court filings, corporate disclosures and transcripts of congressional hearings and investor presentations. Continue reading “Federal Central Planners (and Cronies) Spent Hundreds of Millions of Strategic National Stockpile Funds on Emergent’s Outdated, Marginal Anthrax Vaccine, Leaving N95 Masks Unfunded”

The Promise of Gene Editing Is Greater Than the Peril

(p. C1) The Berkeley biochemist [Jennifer Doudna] had helped to invent a powerful new technology that made it possible to edit the human genome—an achievement that made her the recipient of a Nobel Prize in 2020. The innovation was based on a trick that bacteria have used for more than a billion years to fight off viruses, a talent very relevant to us humans these days. In their DNA, bacteria develop clustered, repeated sequences (what scientists call CRISPRs) that can recognize and then chop up viruses that attack them. Dr. Doudna and others adapted the system to create a tool that can edit DNA—opening up the potential for curing genetic diseases, creating healthier babies, inventing new vaccines, and helping humans to fight their own wars against viruses.

. . .

(p. C2) . . . the advances in CRISPR technology, combined with the havoc wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, have pushed me to be more open to gene editing. I now see the promise of CRISPR more clearly than the peril. If we are wise in how we use it, biotechnology can make us more able to fend off lethal viruses and overcome serious genetic defects.

After millions of centuries during which evolution happened “naturally,” humans now can hack the code of life and engineer our own genetic futures. Or, for those who decry gene editing as “playing God,” let’s put it this way: Nature and nature’s God, in their wisdom, have evolved a species that can modify its own genome.

For the full commentary, see:

Walter Isaacson. “What Gene Editing Can Do for Humankind.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021): C1-C2.

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

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Feb. 19, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

Isaacson’s commentary is related to his book:

Isaacson, Walter. The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021.