Monday, January 26, 2009

Science and Policy Bootcamp - Day 1

This week, I'm participating in an intense public policy and science course designed to be a first introduction to the history of science in America and abroad, and how economics supports and interacts with research and development. MIT is a school that really pushes for its students and scientists to interact with policy-makers, for they are a key part of the current method for acquiring funding and the means to pursue research. In general, MIT"s other agenda with its students is to teach the value of convincing anyone---absolutely anyone---the importance of what you do and that it MATTERS. This is a skill that isn't innate to all, and whether you are writing grants, talking with the public, or working as an educator, MIT will teach you to do this well. And that's probably one of the reasons it is so successful in science and technology, as well as other fields.

There is also an opportunity to visit Washington to lobby congress in the second week of April, which would be an amazing opportunity. (and the cherry blossoms!) I would be working mostly with the Massachusetts delegation of senators and representatives (John Kerry and Ted Kennedy), but I would also petition to meet with the Minnesota delegation (Amy Klobuchar and TBD).

[ Although - I might try and battle my way into Michele Bachman's office and sit her down for some serious tutoring on evolution: "there is a controversy among scientists about whether evolution is a fact or not...There are hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel Prizes, who believe in intelligent design." Right, Michelle. Name those many. And those hundreds. Then we'll talk. And maybe by the end, you'll understand what the concept of "theory" means in a scientific sense. (cited from a debate in St. Cloud in 2006.) ]

Regardless of what I do in Washington, this first day was full of all sorts of new and interesting things, some more related to science than others. The class was taught by the Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Washington, D.C. Office, Bill Bonvillian. He's an older gentleman, but he has had tremendous amounts of policy experience. He knows what he's talking about.

Our first order of business was really talking about what innovation means. Innovation can come in two forms: capitol (money, tools) or systemic (networking, allowing unified cooperation across fields). One of the big questions in this class is "How essential is the government's role in facilitating innovation?" Right now, the US system of science if industry (private sector), universities (funded by public research dollars and industry) and publicly funded research labs (think Bell Labs). The money and ideas that flow between these three areas isn't constant or even managed very effectively or efficiently. So--how do we do this? Should we try?

The argument in this class (and most overwhelmingly elsewhere) is that yes, the government should be involved. The point of contention is how. And how much.

Robert Solow
(an MIT prof who won the Nobel Prize in economics) - said the key to growth in both developed AND developing countries is research and innovation. But - he also said that this sort of growth is exogenous to the process, and isn't inside the economics of the system.

Paul Romer (a professor of economics teaching at Stanford) - is another important figure, and asserts that R&D is more complex: you need a real investment of people -- talented people. I completely agree. However, there is a lot of argument on how to best get these talented people. I would immediately say, "K-12 education is a mess. That's the best place to put money." However---Romer thinks that the best way is to reduce the dropout rate of engineering students at the college level.

There's also the very real problem of intellectual do you protect the inventor yet promote diffusion of knowledge and fuel scientific progress?

Another issue--who decides what is the "best" science to pursue? This is very much a value judgment. Way back in the day, people studied radiation instead of curing disease, and it led to the discovery of x-rays, and x-ray crystallography, a crucial technology to determine the structure of molecules, which lead to the discovery of DNA. Meaning, what is being researched will most certainly have far-reaching consequences, no matter what it looks like at first glance.

In another vein, why is so much money used to research drugs to cure adult onset diabetes and obesity when both are completely curable and preventable by a lifestyle change?

EDIT: It was pointed out to me that this is rather harsh. The big problem I have with all the money that goes to diabetes and obesity research is that it goes straight into Big Pharma. Why? Because Pharma can't make money off patients with rare genetic disorders. Instead, they can make money off the increasing number of obese and diabetic patients in this world. Granted, I think that these problems can be solved without drugs a great deal of the time but this REQUIRES a more supportive society and lots more nutritionists, exercise coaches, and incentives. It requires a large change in how American culture solves health problems. And then the money could go to those other diseases that often aren't supported because they mainly hit children that die young, or people in third world countries that can't pay for drugs. A win-win situation, to be sure.

Health care is already sucking up 20% of the total GDP...isn't prevention a good idea? Why does America have such an issue with legislating that sort of change? Or even offering greater incentives? There is a large connection between technology and sociology. The industrial revolution profoundly changed how life worked, more or less. So where are we now?

Science is also very dynamic, and there is a relationship between science and technology that goes both ways: things like electron microscopy enabled nanotechnology and further study of molecules, but the understanding of the basic science of atoms influenced the creation of better tools. It's a very mutual relationship. So - do we try to split up science and engineering? Do we pinhole the work professors do and accomplish?

Also - will competition work in a monopoly? We have so many different sectors of science, but is that the best way? We restrict access between these groups, but does this fuel competition in order to get things done, or does it do just the opposite?

There was also an interesting side discussion of the incentive of academia versus the money of industry. Why do I do what I do? For the money, obviously. There was talk of putting more obvious benefits into academia, but will that work?

Additionally, there is is the issue of relevance in terms of how the outside looks in and sees what scientists are attempting to do. The analogy was made is that science is like a monastery. We stay isolated from everyone else, write things down that only we can understand, and then throw our manuscripts over a wall. Then, a businessman comes along in a Cadillac, and he first must want to stop. Then he has to translate the foreign document, and understand what it is saying. Finally, he must know what to do with it will actually change things. It's an odd analogy, yet...I see his point. We don't have accurate means of communicating science to investors in many cases...or even to communicate between specific disciplines or across the public/private divide.

I also learned a bit more about the RadLab here at MIT - it's a fascinating story of how to get science done quickly and well. From the moment of getting the initial technology of microwave radar from the British, it took only 24 months to install fully functional radar systems in the entire American air fleet. That is astonishing.

All in all---wow. It was a complete overload of information, but hopefully it will help me become a bit more confident in the issues of science and policy. And yes- there are more questions than answers. Welcome to science.

In closing, to echo M. in a prior note, there was a student texting on his Blackberry throughout the entire lecture (keep in mind-today's class was five hours long). That is disrespectful. You know better. End of story. Watch your back, because next time you leave the room, I'm going to hide it.

1 comment:

M. said...

What is wrong with people?!?! AUGH!