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.

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?”)

Heat Deaths Rise Mostly Due to Rise in Fragile Aging Population

(p. A17) One recent and much-cited Lancet report appears deliberately deceptive.

The study offers a frightening statistic: Rapidly rising temperatures have increased annual global heat deaths among older people by 68% in less than two decades. That stark figure has been cited all over, from the BBC and Time to the Washington Post and the Times of India, the world’s largest-selling English-language daily.

. . .

Annual heat deaths have increased significantly among people 65 and older world-wide. The average deaths per year increased 68% from the early 2000s to the late 2010s. But that is almost entirely because there are so many more older people today than there were 20 years ago, in no small part thanks to medical innovations that keep us alive longer. Measured across the same time span the Lancet maps heat deaths, the number of people 65 and older has risen by 60%, or almost as much as heat deaths. When the increase in heat mortality is adjusted for this population growth, the actual rise that can be attributed to rising temperatures is only 5%.

It is hard not to see the Lancet study’s failure to adjust this figure as a deliberate act of deception.

For the full commentary, see:

Bjorn Lomborg. “The Lancet’s ‘Heat Death’ Deception.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, November 5, 2022): A17.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date November 4, 2022, and has the title “Climate Change and the Lancet’s ‘Heat Death’ Deception.”)

Collins and Fauci Did Not Seek Open Debate on the Great Barrington Declaration

(p. A15) The Trump Twitter ban almost pales in comparison with the speech limitations routinely enforced on discussion of climate and Covid. Instead of “hate” or “violence,” the elastic pretext for speech restriction here is “settled science.”

The essence of science was once open debate. But that’s no longer true. In a now-infamous 2020 email, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins wrote Anthony Fauci that the Great Barrington Declaration, a dissent from Covid-lockdown policy, needed “a quick and devastating published take down,” which soon appeared in the press.

For the full commentary, see:

Henninger, Daniel. “WONDER LAND; They Want to Shut You Up.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, December 15, 2022): A15.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date December 14, 2022, and has the title “WONDER LAND; They Want to Shut You (and 303 Creative) Up.”)

Dogs Can Accurately Know by Smell When a Human Is Stressed

(p. C4) Dogs are champion sniffers, equipped with 100 to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses—compared with a mere 6 million in our own—and an olfactory cortex 40 times as large as ours. They can be trained to detect disease in human beings, including cancer cells, a latent epileptic seizure, or a Covid infection, just by sniffing—no blood samples, biopsies, MRIs, antigen or PCR tests required.

. . .

In a study published in September in the journal PLoS One, Ms. Wilson and colleagues tested whether dogs can read and respond to our emotional states, without the benefit of facial expression, tone of voice, or social context. The researchers trained four dogs to detect and react to the smell of human stress, depending on their sense of smell alone to distinguish between a person’s baseline scent and the unique cocktail of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in their sweat and breath when they’re feeling stressed out.

. . .

The results offered overwhelming confirmation that dogs can smell psychological states as well as physical ones. On average, the four dogs picked out the stress sample 94% of the time, with individual dogs ranging between 90% and 97% accuracy. “There’s a smell to stress,” Ms. Wilson concludes. “If we can add it to the dog’s repertoire, we can use it to identify anxiety and panic attacks before they occur.”

For the full commentary, see:

Susan Pinker. “MIND AND MATTER; Dogs Can Sniff Out When a Human Is Stressed.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022): C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date October 20, 2022, and has the title “MIND AND MATTER; Dogs Can Sniff Out Human Stress.”)

How to Resist the Heat Death Implied by the Second Law of Thermodynamics

When I was a young philosophy student I sometimes worried that the Second Law of Thermodynamics ultimately made meaningless all human perseverance toward progress. Physics Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek gives young philosophers reasons for hope.

(p. C4) The capstone of thermodynamics is its so-called Second Law, . . ., which states that entropy, a measure of disorder, increases over time—distinctive structure erodes. Featureless equilibrium is the state of maximum entropy, toward which the Second Law drives us.

The inexorable logic of the Second Law leads, in the long run, to a bland universe wherein nothing changes—that is, heat death.

. . .

There are several ways that our distant descendants, or other embodiments of mind in the universe, might resist heat death. Here are some ideas that occurred to me . . .:

First, it is probably possible to burn matter further than stars do. Stars rearrange protons and neutrons but do not change their overall number. Burning those particles would give access to hundreds of times more energy. Another (barely) conceivable form of fuel is “dark matter.” At present, nobody knows what it is, but there’s lots of it in the universe.

Second, future engineers also might be able to arrange controlled collisions of planets or dead stars, to tap into the energy the crashes liberate.

Third, future minds themselves might be able to run on very limited power. Recent theoretical work on reversible and quantum computers, and on time crystals, has shown that there’s no lower limit to how little energy they need to keep making progress, or at least to keep moving.

Fourth, since we don’t really understand what triggered the Big Bang, it’s conceivable that someday we’ll be able to engineer something similar, and thereby rejuvenate the universe.

For the full commentary, see:

Frank Wilczek. “WILCZEK’S UNIVERSE; Delaying the Heat Death of The Universe.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022): C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

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

Through Evolution, Body Parts Are Inelegantly Repurposed into Workaround Kluges

If the body itself is an amalgam of workaround kluges, then maybe our regulators should be more tolerant of medical MacGyvers who attempt to keep the body working through medical workaround kluges.

(p. A15) Mr. Pievani is a professor of biology at the University of Padua. His brief and thoughtful book (translated from the Italian by Michael Gerard Kenyon) isn’t just a description of imperfection, but a paean to it. There’s plenty of description and discussion, too, as “Imperfection” takes the reader on a convincing whirlwind tour of the dangers as well as the impossibility of perfection, how imperfection is built into the nature of the universe, and into all living things—including ourselves.

. . .

Readers wanting to get up to speed on imperfection would do well to attend to two little-known words with large consequences. The first is “palimpsest,” which in archaeology refers to any object that has been written upon, then erased, then written over again (sometimes many times), but with traces of the earlier writings still faintly visible. Every living thing is an evolutionary palimpsest, with adaptations necessarily limited because they’re built upon previous structures.

Consider, for example, childbirth. As smart critters, we’ve been selected (naturally) to have big heads. But in becoming bipedal, we had to rotate our pelvises, which set limits on the size of the birth canal. As a result, an unborn baby’s head is perilously close to being too big to get out. Usually, they manage it, but not without much painful laboring and sometimes, if this cephalopelvic disproportion is too great, or if the baby is malpositioned, by means of a cesarean delivery. In such cases, obstetricians take the newborn out the obvious way: through that large, unobstructed abdominal space between pelvis and lower ribs. Things would have been much easier and safer for mother and baby if the birth canal were positioned there, too, but our palimpsest nature precludes such a straightforward arrangement.

Which brings us to our second unusual word: “kluge,” something—assembled from diverse components—that shouldn’t work, but does. A kluge is a workaround: often clumsy, inelegant, inefficient, but that does its job nonetheless. Because we and all other living things are living palimpsests, we are kluges as well.

For the full review, see:

David P. Barash. “BOOKSHELF; Unintelligent Design.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, October 26, 2022): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date October 25, 2022, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Imperfection’ Review: Unintelligent Design.”)

The book under review is:

Pievani, Telmo. Imperfection: A Natural History. Translated by Michael Gerard Kenyon. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2022.

Entrepreneurs Harvest Useful Protein Collagens From “Precision Fermentation” Rather Than From Slaughter of Animals

(p. B4) The multibillion-dollar push to make animals obsolete in the food industry has already produced pea-protein “bratwurst,” fungus molded into “ham” and “leather,” and “meat” cultured from chicken cells. Geltor, a seven-year-old company based in the Bay Area, is taking a different tack: bioengineering bacteria cells to produce animal proteins you’ll likely never taste.

Geltor is producing forms of collagen they say are identical to the proteins extracted from skin and bones. For now, those vegan collagens can be found in high-end skin care creams. But as the company grows, it’s eyeing other ingredients few Americans associate with animal farming, such as the elastin in your shampoo, the collagen peptides in your smoothie, and even the gelatin (which is hydrolyzed, or slightly broken-down, collagen) in your marshmallows. Alex Lorestani, co-founder and chief executive of Geltor, likes to talk about how the company’s proteins impose a lighter burden on the environment than the meat industry. The challenge, however, is how the company gets to the scale necessary to exert that kind of impact.

In 2012, Dr. Lorestani and co-founder Nick Ouzounov, both 35, were both pursuing doctorates in molecular biology at Princeton University when the invention of Crispr turbocharged the field of bio-design. “We can bio-design medicine,” Dr. Lorestani recalled discussing with his labmates that summer. “Why can’t we bio-design everything?”

Dr. Ouzounov eventually came up with a method — which he and Dr. Lorestani, in typical Bay Area techspeak, call “a platform” — for genetically modifying bacteria cells to reproduce a wide variety of animal proteins, a process that biotech firms are calling “precision fermentation.” In 2015, the two scientists formed Geltor.

For the full story, see:

Jonathan Kauffman. “Going Beyond Vegan ‘Meat’ to Bio-Designed Collagen.” The New York Times (Wednesday, August 3, 2022): B4.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date August 2, 2022, and has the title “Is Bio-Designed Collagen the Next Step in Animal Protein Replacement?”)

Geophysical Science Is Not Settled

(p. D2) Last year, one of the most dangerous volcanoes in Africa erupted without warning.

. . .

Now, in a new study published this Wednesday [Aug. 31, 2022] in Nature, Delphine Smittarello, a geophysicist at the European Center for Geodynamics and Seismology in Walferdange, Luxembourg, and her colleagues articulated how the eruption managed to ambush everyone.

. . .

This sort of unannounced eruption offers scientists a harsh lesson: For every paradigm-shifting secret they extract from their mountainous subjects, “there are always things that we don’t understand,” said Emily Montgomery-Brown, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory who was not involved in the study. “It’s a good reminder not to get cocky.”

. . .

. . . it’s possible that we will never become perfect prophets of our volcanic futures. “There may be things we will never be able to forecast,” Dr. Montgomery-Brown said.

For the full story, see:

Robin George Andrews. “An Eruption That Forecasters Couldn’t Foresee.” The New York Times (Tuesday, September 6, 2022): D2.

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

(Note: the online version has the date Sept. 2, 2022, and has the title “A Volcano Erupted Without Warning. Now, Scientists Know Why.”)

The article in Nature mentioned above is:

Smittarello, D., B. Smets, J. Barrière, C. Michellier, A. Oth, T. Shreve, R. Grandin, N. Theys, H. Brenot, V. Cayol, P. Allard, C. Caudron, O. Chevrel, F. Darchambeau, P. de Buyl, L. Delhaye, D. Derauw, G. Ganci, H. Geirsson, E. Kamate Kaleghetso, J. Kambale Makundi, I. Kambale Nguomoja, C. Kasereka Mahinda, M. Kervyn, C. Kimanuka Ruriho, H. Le Mével, S. Molendijk, O. Namur, S. Poppe, M. Schmid, J. Subira, C. Wauthier, M. Yalire, N. d’Oreye, F. Kervyn, and A. Syavulisembo Muhindo. “Precursor-Free Eruption Triggered by Edifice Rupture at Nyiragongo Volcano.” Nature 609, no. 7925 (Sept. 1, 2022): 83-88.

(Note: the Sept. 1 issue of Nature was “published” on Aug. 31.)

Shy and “Docile” Raccoons May Be “More Likely to Learn”

(p. D3) Despite their reputation, little is known about why raccoons are so good at urban living.

Over the past few years, researchers have taken to the streets of Laramie, Wyo., to uncover the raccoons’ secrets, adapting a cognitive test designed for captive animals so that it can be deployed in the wild.

Preliminary findings suggest that the most docile animals learned to use the testing devices more easily than bolder, more aggressive ones did, a result that has implications for our relationship with urban wildlife. The study was published on Thursday [Sept. 22, 2022] in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

. . .

Dr. Stanton’s team . . . wanted to know if certain characteristics made a raccoon more likely to excel on the test. They noted each animal’s behavior throughout the trapping and tagging process and found that individual raccoons reacted differently to the stress of being captured: Some were aggressive, hissing at the researchers, whereas others were quiet in their traps.

The scientists had expected that bolder raccoons would be more likely to interact with the testing devices. “But this isn’t what we found,” Dr. Stanton said.

Instead, the docile raccoons were more likely to learn how the devices work. The surprising discovery has implications for how cities deal with raccoons.

Urban wildlife management tends to focus on aggressive animals that may be confronting people and their pets, noted Sarah Benson-Amram, a behavioral ecologist at the University of British Columbia and a co-author of the study. By neglecting the docile animals, we may be increasing the proportion of problem-solving raccoons living in cities.

“Maybe they’re the ones who are learning how to open up the chicken coops and steal your chickens or break into your attic,” Dr. Benson-Amram said.

The results of the study add to a growing body of research suggesting animals that aren’t as aggressive or stressed by the presence of people may also have cognitive skills that help them thrive in urban areas.

“This is perhaps the first step towards domestication,” said Benjamin Geffroy, a biologist at the University of Montpellier in France. “Now we need to know more about what comes first, docility or cognitive abilities.”

. . .

Working with captive raccoons has convinced Dr. Benson-Amram that they actually enjoy cognitive challenges. “We give them problems, and even when there’s no reward, they just keep going for it,” she said.

Raccoons in urban environments can also be remarkably persistent, said Suzanne MacDonald, an animal behavior scientist at York University in Toronto. For one study, she put an open can of cat food in a trash bin, secured the lid with a bungee cord and deployed it in backyards to see how raccoons would react.

“I had one female spend like eight hours trying to get in,” Dr. MacDonald said. “And she did.”

For the full story, see:

Betsy Mason. “Shy Raccoons May Have an Edge in Learning.” The New York Times (Tuesday, September 27, 2022): D3.

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

(Note: the online version has the date Sept. 22, 2022, and has the title “Shy Raccoons Are Better Learners Than Bold Ones, Study Finds.”)

The article in the Journal of Experimental Biology mentioned above is:

Stanton, Lauren A., Eli S. Bridge, Joost Huizinga, and Sarah Benson-Amram. “Environmental, Individual and Social Traits of Free-Ranging Raccoons Influence Performance in Cognitive Testing.” Journal of Experimental Biology 225, no. 18 (2022) DOI: 10.1242/jeb.243726.