Some recent interactions with medical researchers and conferences I've attended have caused me to think about incentives in the field of research, and I'm quite worried.
First, I've realized how extremely finicky and sensitive the scientific process is. Final results can be significantly skewed in the "wrong" direction by variations in equipment, ingredient formulations, specific techniques, and parameters used. Many intermediate ingredients (cells, RNA, etc.) are available off the shelf, which seems convenient, but often has the risk of quite variable quality (I personally saw researchers re-ordering some RNA compound because twice they received something that failed to work as advertised).
The scientific process is complex, difficult, and still so labor-intensive. You would think that in the 21st century the "rote" work would all be outsourced to cheaper labor destinations and/or fully automated with machines, but that's still far from prevalent. Science is still being done in many of the most prominent research universities in a form that's closer to high school chemistry than to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Secondly, I've frequently heard about "publish or perish" and the extreme focus on publishing positive, statistically significant results. This makes people care more about quantity than quality and on "proving" hypotheses right rather than disproving them or trying new techniques, even if they don't work. There are no rewards for failure, and you can't get a patent for trying. In professional science, as opposed to school, there is unfortunately no "A for effort." And I think we lose a lot of valuable information and create a lot of wasted time by duplicating techniques instead of sharing with each other by publishing things like, "I tried these 5,000 combinations. They didn't work. So if you read this, you might want to try something else."
This results in several complications to the pure pursuit of knowledge and improvement of the human condition. The best publications are peer-reviewed, and the "peers" are the ones competing with the authors for the same publication slots. The one-way anonymity (not double blind) means that people scratch the backs of their friends and form "societies" (which like to meet at conferences) that are really like old boys' clubs for cheering each other on and publishing each other's work.
Also, the focus on publishing creates so much published research that no one can follow it and keep track of it. I'm always shocked when I see scientific citations listing that an article was on pages 1,056-1,064. Who out there is reading thousand-page long journals? I see the same problem with patents: sure, publishing research and filing a patent make the knowledge accessible (when searching for it) but they don't make it prevalent and don't cue anyone to read the findings by themselves.
In addition, because of the drive to publish quantity and show "results" even when they're suspect, it drives the quality of research down, yielding false results. John Ioannidis at Stanford wrote about how too much medicine relies on flawed assumptions, explaining how most published research findings are false. The WSJ wrote several articles explaining how pharmaceutical companies are unable to reproduce most research findings (see above about scientific complexity and sensitivity to specific conditions and compounds).
It's like we're giving people prizes for trying something a thousand times until finally they get lucky enough (or are careful enough) to produce something scientifically significant instead of rewarding them for working hard and producing truthful results (and sharing their experiences either way).
I'm not trying to diss researchers or publications or universities. I know almost all the individuals are honest and extremely hard-working and do believe in the deeper goals of science. I just think the current system is sub-optimal, and I don't know how to fix it. I'm curious to hear what others think.
One thing I've been thinking about is the various approaches to philanthropy. I wanted to briefly mention the two spheres they fall in and ask what you think.
The most common behavior I keep reading about is something like "deferred philanthropy." It's where an individual is hard-working, profit-seeking, and makes a lot of money in his first sixty years only to later give most of it away to charity. I've heard so many stories of investment bankers who later serve on many charitable foundation boards, give away a ton of money to charity, and even set up their own non-profits or foundations. There's also obviously stories like Buffett's and Gates's (both were first mostly wealth-seeking and later philanthropic).
There's a trend now for younger entrepreneurs (especially those who have accumulated wealth) to commit early on to give most of it away, and I think that falls in the same realm. There are tax incentives to give money to charity, and setting up foundations, allowing people to keep wealth (sort of) in the family (without paying estate taxes); family will be controlling that wealth and can have it pay for various expenses as long as it's generally philanthropically-oriented overall. I see it as a question like, "Do you want to give your money when you die to the government to recirculate in society or to a charitable cause of your own choosing?" Given some individuals' mistrust of the government and annoyance with its corruption and inefficiency, giving to charities (which are also imperfect but maybe less so) seems better.
I've been wondering two things about this trend, and I'm curious what others think. First, if you work so hard to achieve a big goal and grow a big, valuable company and in the end just give most of your money away, what does that say about your incentives and inner goals and desires? Is it just to benefit from the money in the meantime? Is it to feel rewarded on the inside from having achieved and built something great (and the money doesn't really matter)? Or are people actively negotiating and working hard to pull in the maximum wealth possible all in the name of the society to which they'll give their money back (seems unlikely to me)?
Second, it's interesting what this means about the flow of money. Consumers pay money to these big growing companies for their goods and services, then these companies are sold and the founders donate a bunch of wealth (that came from consumers) to charity. So it's like everyday consumers are effectively raising money for charity en masse through companies. This seems like a good thing, but not something that's explicit.
The second model of philanthropy is more like "simultaneous philanthropy" where you're actively "making a difference" philanthropically earlier in life and as you move through your career. This can be in the form of social entrepreneurship (companies that are non-profit or for-profit but which give back at the same time as earning money) as well as simply doing community service, volunteering, CSR, and just giving money to charity now, before you've become very wealthy. There's also the idea of "catalytic philanthropy," or approaching philanthropy from an entrepreneurial standpoint and using business skills to be more effective at change.
This second model seems like a better, more honest model to me, in the same way that "living life now as you eventually want to" seems like a better philosophy than the "deferred life plan" (see also 4-Hour Workweek).
What do you think? Is it right/logical/good to be building up companies and deferring certain things just to give it all away in the end? Is society raising money for charities through for-profit companies that eventually give it away? How "efficient" and non-corrupt are most charities anyways? And is a model of simultaneous philanthropy preferable? I don't have a lot of data or answers and am curious what others think.
I've been reading Reamde by Neal Stephenson on my Kindle iPhone for the past six months or so (it's a super long book, and I probably read an average of 1 Kindle page per day, like during times when I was waiting for something). Purely based on my reading rate, I could tell that I was enjoying the book much more in the second half when the action really picked up. The last 20% I probably finished in a week.
This book is definitely a lot of fun and chock full of classic Neal Stephenson: weapons, action, computers, hackers, terrorists, etc. It was really cool to see some modern themes incorporated, such as gamification, virtual currency (which is convertible into real money and thus actually supports a real-world economy and real-world full-time jobs), and MMO games. It was interesting to see both Reamde and Daemon be based on these concepts.
The story is about a very random slew of events that weaves together the destinies of physicists, game designers, hackers, terrorists, CIA, and MI5. It got me thinking about whether an MMO game that features convertible virtual currency could really get off the ground (better than Second Life) and support a whole economy of workers. The author's pages-long descriptions of many of the details of the engineering, writing, and design that goes into game production were really interesting as well.
In the end, it was crazy how all the characters' paths came together to achieve the ending (it was a bit too much of a deus ex machina/coincidental ending for my taste). Overall, the book takes dedication to get through, but it's definitely worth it (and educational along the way).