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When science meets freakonomics

I subscribe to a couple of podcasts, and usually use my long runs to catch up with some longer episodes. As I am a slow runner, yesterday I was able to listen to two new episodes of different podcasts, and listening to them in sequence made me think about the connection between them.

The first podcast was Science Disrupt. This particular episode I’ve listened was about building the science startups of tomorrow (very interesting one). But a peculiar thing about this podcast is that after every interview, the hosts always ask the same question to all guests: “Thinking about the science ecosystem as a whole, what else do you think in science still needs to be disrupted?” – and they always get very interesting answers! The other podcast was the second episode of the Earth 2.0 series from Freakonomics Radio. This series is supposed to answer the question “What if we could remake earth? What would you change?

As I was listening to this Freakonomics episode, my mind just wandered around replacing the word “economy” by “science“, and I was amazed how the discussion still seemed pretty pertinent (in my mind). They asked A LOT of questions along the podcast, but I’m just going to go over a few of them. I’m going to try to describe the parallel here, and hopefully it will make sense on paper as much as it did while I was running…

  • “If we had the chance to totally reboot our economic system, what would that new system look like?. That seems like an unanswerable question – both economic and science-wise – and why we bother to discuss this?

Abhijit BANERJEE: I think that doing things consciously with thought, asking lots of questions; not doing them because this is how we’ve always done things, this is our tradition, this is the normal in the world … Asking questions: “Why do we do these things?” “Is this the right thing to do?” “What is the actual evidence for it?” That’s key. We won’t have a blueprint for the world. But we will have a better way of building a better world.

Applying this to science, it is easy to say that a lot of things need to change in our science system, regarding the way scientists are hired, funded, evaluated. Along those lines, our publishing and peer-review system also needs some evaluation. However, can you propose a real and feasible strategy that will make our scientific system work better? Paraphrasing Paul Ryan re: health care reform, “it’s a lot easier to oppose something than to be for something.”

Still, scientists should still reflect about the system and not simply do things automatically only because it’s how things are done. Are you happy with the current system? No, so what can you do to change it? If you don’t know where to start, the article How Scientists Can Influence Policy has some interesting suggestions. Figure out what is already happening. Expand your readings. Write letters, emails. Pick up the phone!

  • “What should be done about income inequality?”

KANTER: To make things work well, inequality doesn’t help. If you have a lot of people who feel left out of the system, well, they do get angry, and they sometimes surprise you with their feelings. But also, they often go passive. They think nothing could be done to change anything. And because of that, they’re not very motivated, and nothing does change.

Yes. Inequality doesn’t help in science either. Every time that I see a list of grants /prizes awarded, there’s a pattern there. You always see a lot of money going towards the big institutions and less or even no money awarded to small Universities. You can say that money comes to big institutions because they do better research, but how can small institutions do better research if they are underfunded?

I believe some researchers may become angry when thinking about the current funding climate, but most of them fall into the later category: go passive. As a salesperson that sells expensive laboratory equipment, I talk to many professors on a daily basis. Many times, when I suggest that they could apply for a equipment grant, or group with other researchers to get a multi-user equipment, they just sound so… unmotivated. Almost like “why bother to write a grant for that, if I know that it will be rejected?”.

I know government funding for research has never been that low, but there are alternatives. Ryan Bethencourt (Program Director and Venture Partner at IndieBio) suggested on the ScienceDisrupt podcast that researchers should start looking at partnerships with the private sector – partner with biotech companies to raise additional money and bring your research forward.

  • “Why North America has been more successful economically than South America?”

Tyler COWEN: Whereas, say, the Spanish colonies were more likely based on the idea of extracting wealth from other people, or taking a lot of the resources out of the ground and not investing as much in human capital.

Why some research groups are more successful than others? Is because of the institution that they are located? Or it’s because they research a topic that’s more appealing to the grant funding agencies? Also, this question made me think about all the team supporting a research group. Graduate students, postdocs, technicians. When a PI is training a GS or a PD, does it make a difference if they are just interested in their skilled labor, or if they are really training them to be better scientists? I truly believe so.

As much as a lab PI is supposed to be the leader, the mentor of its group, a successful lab still needs to be a group. And it’s the PI’s job to make this group cohesive and motivated to science! It is important to take your time and teach your group what takes to be a successful scientist. Also, keep in mind that not all GS (or even PD) will necessarily go towards an academic position. Knowing your group, understanding the goals and limitations of each one of its members can really make a difference!

  • “If you want to think about building the perfect economic system, there are so so so many elements to consider. Money, for instance. What is the optimal form of money?”

SURI: The biggest two findings are that mobile money improves financial resilience, which is the ability to deal with bad events. Basically, we find that it has an effect on poverty; it’s going to reduce poverty. (…) You’re saving more because you have the ability to save in your phone, and so people are able to do these things.

What is the currency of academia? Publications and grants. Not only number of publications, but also the impact factor of the journals on which they are published. Publications are part of the measurements of a researcher’s success, determining if they are going to get hired, funded, and be successful in their careers. The podcast suggested that the use of mobile money could decrease poverty, and I wonder if academia could somewhat change its currency to be more fair to all researchers.

  • Is the World Ready for a Guaranteed Basic Income?

CAPLAN: Saying, “Let’s give everybody free money no matter what. People perfectly able-bodied. People perfectly able to take care of themselves.” That seems crazy at the outset. But more importantly, if you do a small amount of math and realize how much would it cost, the cost is enormous. Right now, the welfare state — we’re able to keep the cost down because we don’t give money to everybody.

So, with all bias and problems regarding grant funding, what about if we just gave some funding to all researchers to do their research? I certainly don’t believe this would be a good idea, as there are so many researchers from different fields, all requiring different amounts of money to perform their research. Along those lines, a new grant funding system was proposed by Johan Bollen at Indiana University where scientists would just give each other money: “Self-organized fund allocation” (SOFA). Unfortunately, I don’t believe this would work either, as the bias (and pressure) towards funding your own friends would be enormous, and also making things even harder for junior researchers.

I don’t have an answer to most of these questions. But it was nice to reflect on those issues, economy and science-wise. One of the conclusions of the Freakonomics podcast was that it’s hard to build a good economic infrastructure without a good political infrastructure. I do truly believe we have a lot to learn from economics!

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