In this episode, I talk with Stuart about metascience, why the age of NIH grantees has risen so much, how to improve science, and how well our current funding organizations work.
Stuart runs the Good Science Project. https://goodscienceproject.org/
William Jarvis 0:05
Hey folks, welcome to narratives. narratives is a podcast exploring the ways in which the world is better than in the past, the ways that is worse in the past, or it’s a better, more definite vision of the future. I’m your host, William Jarvis. And I want to thank you for taking the time out of your day to listen to this episode. I hope you enjoy it. You can find show notes, transcripts and videos at narratives podcast.com.
Will Jarvis 0:38
Well, Stuart, how are we doing this afternoon? Doing great.
Stuart Buck 0:41
Thanks for having me.
Will Jarvis 0:42
Absolutely. Well, Stuart, thank you so much for taking the time today to come on the show. I really appreciate it. Do you mind giving us kind of a brief bio and some of the big ideas you’re interested in?
Stuart Buck 0:53
Sure. I mean, I guess my bio is you’ve you noted in our correspondence previously, it’s a little bit all over the place. So I’ll just like get make it as brief as I can. So I started out with a music degree where I majored in classical guitar performance. Then, like a lot of liberal arts majors who aren’t sure what to do with their lives, I ended up going to law school, practice law for a few years and decided I didn’t want to bill hours for the rest of my life. So switched yet again, did a PhD in education policy, and was thinking about going into academia. And then a really cool opportunity opened up to work for the what was then called the Lauren John Arnold Foundation, which was just starting up in Houston. So moved to Houston and took a VP of research job that I worked at for about nine years. And in that job did a ton of work on evidence based policy and sponsoring academic research. And on trying to improve the scientific process improves reproducibility. So that’s that’s became became a key theme for for the work that I like to do. So left left Arnold Arnold ventures, as it’s now called last year, and then worked with Patrick Collison, to set up a small nonprofit Think Tank, I guess you could call it that. We’re calling the good science project, with the goal of trying to improve the funding and practice of science. So that’s about as brief as I
Will Jarvis 2:16
can make it. I love it now that this that’s super concise, that’s perfectly delivered. Stuart. I’m curious,
how did you first get interested in these problems of science? Like, what’s going on with science? Was it in the Ph. D. program?
Was it at Arnold ventures when you’d like to just stumble upon it was there like it was it just a gradual thing where you just can’t really quite remember,
Stuart Buck 2:34
I can remember in exact conversation where this really hit the radar screen. So I was sitting with John Arnold in mid 2012, and just started working there. And we had a conversation about evidence based policy. And then we had both independently in the news, seen a controversy over a Yale psychology professor whose name is John barge, which is spelled var G H, but it’s pronounced barge. He had done some some studies that had failed to replicate. And it’d become a controversy because he wrote a couple of I think it was two kind of angry columns on this website. I think it was psychology today.com, where he accused the people replicating his studies of basically not knowing what they were doing and being incompetent. I think he’s used words like empty headed, something like that. And so became this controversy in the psychology community, you know, like, what’s the value of replication? Does this work? Stand up? Is John barge being really, you know, over the top rude? And anyway, John Earl and I both seen this. And I thought, well, this is interesting, like what? You know, is there anything more to this? So I started digging around. And it turned out that there were people in multiple fields, from medicine, to economics to psychology, who had been talking about this problem of replicability. And you know, whether we’re really doing sound science or whether we’re being like overly influenced by the publication process, and the need to just crank out positive findings at all costs, and so forth. And so that became an important issue because, you know, the Arnold’s, we’re trying to set up a foundation that revolves around evidence based policy in a number of areas from criminal justice, education, health, etc. But if your focus is evidence based policy, and you can’t really trust the evidence, that’s a big problem. So, so then then became a mission to try to figure out well, how do we know what what evidence we can trust? And, you know, how can we help to try to improve the evidentiary process and the process of research and science? Gotcha. So it was that conversation on that day,
Will Jarvis 4:38
that’s conversation that kind of kind of drove it. I’m curious. So, you know, you’re trying to, you know, enact kind of interventions, you know, based on on, you know, solid, like, research and findings, you know, at Arnold ventures at the time. I’m curious what I have the sneaking suspicion, or at least I did, I haven’t followed the replication part. ISIS super closely. So, you know, I’m not as well versed in it. But I had this sneaking suspicion that, you know, we caught it and maybe social psychology first because it’s kind of, it’s super legible, like anybody can kind of read kind of a social psychology study and probably kind of understand what’s going on. Whereas if it’s an analytical chemistry, you know, I don’t know, like I, you know, if you don’t have an expertise in the field, it’s harder to kind of get there. I guess my question is, is, are some fields worse than others? And is that like a wide range? Or are they all kind of bad? Are some of them good? Some of them? Not as bad? And what’s your sense of that?
Stuart Buck 5:33
I mean, that’s a really good question. I mean, of course, there are many, many different scientific and academic fields. So I can’t claim to know all of them equally well. I do think social psychology, social psychology, in particular, is one area that was both problematic as you’re pointing out, but also easier to replicate it and so that that matters. So the study I was talking about with John barge, you may have heard of it, or, you know, some folks may have heard of it. But I’ll just repeat quickly what that study was about, you know, for purposes of the conversation, so he, he basically, it was a kind of priming study where he was priming students to have this like concept in their head without really telling them what he was doing. So he would have, he brought students into the lab, and he would have them on some pretext, read over lists of words and try to remember them or something like that. And for for some of the students that were being experimentally evaluated, some of the words on the list would somehow relate to old age, okay. And so the idea was, this gets them kind of unconsciously, or subconsciously thinking about being old. And so then what the real point experiment was, he had somebody timing, the speed at which they walked down the hall as they left the room, right, where they read this list of words. And the students who had read the words that in some way related to being old, ended up walking more slowly down the hall. So you’re right, this is a very catchy finding, you know, anyone can kind of understand it. And it’s also easy to replicate. I mean, as because other people tried to do it and said, Okay, this is something that you could do in an afternoon, right? It’s fairly straightforward. And then they found that it didn’t really make a difference. Which actually, it shouldn’t be all that surprising. I mean, imagine if we were that, like susceptible to like everything that we came across, you know, read a word of old age, and then all of a sudden, we’re like, hunched over decrepit, like, can’t walk anymore, and read about Michael Jordan, and we’re flying down the hall, right? This would be quite quite an odd world if we were that manipulable. But anyway, social psychology is, for that reason, like, as you say, easier to understand a lot of studies and then easier, more straightforward to replicate them. And so it’s, therefore a lot easier to then kind of figure out what is the status of this field. Now, cancer biology, by contrast, is a field that also has some problems with replicability. But it’s a lot harder to replicate studies. And I can point to a particular project that I funded while at Arnold, which is called the rep reproducibility project in cancer biology. And I might get a few little details wrong. But basically, I think the original project was supposed to cost around one and a half million. And it was going to try to replicate 50 cancer biology experiments over a period of like four or five years, and that that was going to be the project. Well, we ended up having to kick in some more money, I think it was around five $600,000. They ended up cutting back the number of experiments, they were replicating to around, I forget what the final number was maybe about 20. And the project took eight years. And so the final results were just published earlier this year. So you might think, Well, that looks like it was just inefficient in every possible way. You know, it costs more took longer and did less. But the whole problem there is that it’s just prac, it’s like virtually impossible to replicate even to start replicating these cancer biology experiments. Because what they found in every single case, was they would read the article, and they would say, Hmm, there’s a lot of missing steps, a lot of missing information, like we can’t tell what they did at this point, there had they had done, they have to have made a particular choice. So anyway, they have to go back to the original labs. And oftentimes, the original labs weren’t particularly happy or cooperative about like working with them and saying, what they actually did an experiment. But when they would finally get the information about how did you actually do this experiment? And what kind of materials and antibodies or et cetera, et cetera, what did you use?
That the answer invariably was always like, well, here’s a list of stuff you have to buy that’s twice as long and cost twice as much as you thought. So I mean, this whole process just took an extraordinary amount of time, and money and effort. And you know, in some cases, they just couldn’t like even get off the ground to replicate experiments. So I guess the point is like that, that whole experience showed that I mean, it’s just really hard to even try to replicate stuff so it makes you wonder, okay, what what is going on in that field like because barely anyone can even try to replicate it unless they have a lot of money and a lot of time and a lot of patients. So yeah, that’s not not necessarily a good sign. I do think there are other areas they don’t physics and cosmology, at least from what little I know of it that have more of a strong culture of replication, you know, if someone says they found like evidence of some cosmic wave or something, you know, other physicists will be trying to independently analyze the data. And so I feel like there’s more more of a culture of that sort of activity. But yeah, it’s it’s it’s widely variable, I guess, across different fields. But it’s there probably are a lot of fields that are problematic, and probably some that aren’t really even aware of it are addressing issue yet.
Will Jarvis 10:37
Gotcha. It does make it does make sense. There’s somebody who’s, it’s there’s some areas where it is easier just to replicate generally, just because of like, certain, you know, like, you don’t have to run these massive experience, ceramics that require all these compounds, and etc. So it’s kind of variable. That makes a lot of sense. I’m curious, Stuart, you know, if you had to grade humanities, science today, like science today, how would you grade it? Are we doing okay? Are we doing really well, really badly, like somewhere in the middle? And it just like, kind of It depends, like way too much. And it’s very difficult to tell.
Stuart Buck 11:12
What do you think? I mean, it’s probably it depends a lot on the context and the specific field you’re talking about. Overall, I mean, let’s, let’s give it a b minus. I mean, there are lots of areas of science and technology that are coming up with amazing discoveries and advances. But I still think there are lots of ways that we could do better, or scientific system, particularly in biomedicine. It’s more and more difficult for younger people to get a foothold within the system. And they’re even when they get a foothold, they’re tied down, you know, they end up spending half their time, probably on bureaucracy and writing more proposals. endless, endless numbers of proposals, because oftentimes, like the funding rate at something someplace, like the National Cancer Institute might be around nine or 10%. So 9090 plus percent of the proposals are not getting funded. So that’s a lot of work being, you know, to comply with all the requirements of the information that you have to provide. And then, yeah, you don’t get it funded. So. So yeah, I think there’s a lot of ways that we’re basically tying scientists hands. And that we could, we could probably do a lot better.
Will Jarvis 12:20
Got it? How bad is it? And can you talk about this a little bit, this fact that, you know, the average age of, you know, NIH grant winners has gone up so much over time since like, the 1980s or so.
Stuart Buck 12:33
Right? Yeah, that’s, I think it’s, it’s definitely a problem. And NIH is aware of it, and they keep trying to expand like kind of early career grants, but it’s still seems like, you know, kind of a drop in the bucket compared to what they could be doing. Now, I do think that, you know, the aging of the population with a baby boomer is getting older, and might be part of a function of this. So I would just, you know, looking the other day at the top grossing musical tours of over the past 40 years, and around 1980 81, the top grossing music tour was the Rolling Stones. Okay, so then you look at the top grossing musical tour last year, also the Rolling Stones. So, yeah, the Rolling Stones are just perennially popular. And, you know, they they tour a lot, evidently, so. So there’s a case where like, you know, the the exact same people are getting older, but also making a lot of money in the process. So I think probably, there’s some of that that’s happened within the NIH ecosystem, as well, that there were people, baby boomers who were like, around 3030, ish and 1980. And they became successful, and they built a reputation and a career. And now because of you know, that you can’t mandate that people retire at 65. Like, now, they’re 70. And they’re still cranking away at their lab. And so it’s probably a literally some of the same people, you know, so it’s, it’s not so much necessarily the NIH is biased towards elderly people now, as opposed to 30 year olds and 1880s. It’s probably there’s, they’re finding some of the same people, there’s a lot of kind of path dependence in who they find the success breeds more success, you know, like, though, so you get an NIH grant at age 30, and 1980. And you just, you’re, you’re kind of sad. That’s what I suspect is, is part of what’s going on. But all of that said, I mean, I do wonder if there are ways to kind of gently encourage people to retire and to make room for younger people, because, you know, it’s just famous saying that science advances One funeral at a time. And there’s, you know, science, people who have looked into this and they found evidence that like when a very prominent scientist in the field dies, that there’s that there’s kind of an explosion, don’t be too strong, but there, there are more ideas that crop up in that person’s particular field afterwards. So So yeah, and but I do think it’s important because a lot of you You know, throughout history, a lot of like young people, by today’s standards, have done great things. Einsteins best year, arguably was when he was 26. He published like relativity and other papers in 1905. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, he published that when he was 26. Paul Samuelson, who’s the great economist, he wrote this book called The foundations of economic analysis, which is like a classic economics book, it was based on his dissertation that he did when he was 26. I was just looking Isaac Newton, I was wondering, When did Isaac Newton discover calculus, it was in his like, early to mid 20s. So it’s, it’s certainly possible for people who are, you know, under the age of 40, and then aged 35, to do great work, and yet, we’re telling them with the NIH system, you know, if you’re 24, and you have a brilliant idea, and you have a lot of talent, you can slave away, you know, getting a PhD for the next, however many years, six, eight years, possibly do a post do one or more postdocs for possibly several years, it may be by the time you’re in your late 30s, you know, you’re kind of ready to start your career. And then, you know, some talented people are gonna say, wait a minute, I could go to any number of other industries, and make a lot more money a lot more quickly. And, you know, not not faced this this, like, monumental hurdle of trying to navigate this, you know, academic ecosystem. So. So yeah, that’s, that’s one way in which I feel like, you know, we could do things better, we could make more space for younger, brilliant people to, you know, follow their notes release.
William Jarvis 16:33
That’s good. That’s good.
Will Jarvis 16:34
How much of that? How much do you think? How much of the effect of having younger scientists is the fact that they’re younger, they have more like, maybe it’s like fluid intelligence or something going on? Versus like, they just like aren’t encumbered with some of like, the, you know, I don’t know, previously held beliefs when that when they come into it. And in the city, it’s probably not even important, like, distinguishing that. I don’t know. But do you have any thoughts there?
Stuart Buck 16:57
Yeah, that’s that that could be a good point. I mean, yeah, I do think that, you know, a lot of great scientific breakthroughs traditionally have come almost by definition, from someone who has an idea that’s, that’s different, or makes it a leap forward from what the mainstream in their field is doing. And I say, by definition, because I mean, if what you’re doing in science is the same thing that everyone else is doing. That’s not a breakthrough, right? And breakthrough, almost by definition means you, you’re doing something that’s different, that brings in insights from another field, maybe you’ve developed in, you know, new technology, like X ray crystallography, led people to be able to discover the structure of DNA, you know, all these sorts of ways in which like, new ideas, and new insights can be brought into a field, but almost by definition, it’s it’s something different. So maybe there’s something to the idea that, you know, if you’re someone who for whatever reason, including being young, is less, kind of, in, you know, tied down and encumbered by just the traditional view of the field, maybe you have, you haven’t already spent, you know, 30 or 40 years building up your reputation for, you know, a particular finding of yours or a particular theory, right, then, then maybe you have a better chance of making an advance. I mean, let’s take take the Alzheimer’s disease question. So for many years, the the focus, there has been on the so called amyloid hypothesis that that amyloid is this like, fibrous material that builds up in the brain and then makes people’s brains slow down, ultimately die. And if only we could prevent or somehow remove or cure this amyloid problem, then that would that would cure Alzheimer’s. And there have been dozens and dozens of clinical trials of drugs that are so that are apparently in some way successful at addressing amyloid, but that don’t actually result in they end up not resulting in clinical improvements, like people’s ability to think or their lifespan. So I would argue that, you know, if you if you want new ideas and Alzheimer’s field, it’s probably not going to come from some of the famous scientists who have literally spent the past 30 years saying amyloid is the answer. We know, we know it, it’s going to work this time. Like they just have it’s, it’s hard for someone who’s like 6070 years old, and who has made their entire career publishing on one particular hypothesis, to suddenly say, All right, I guess I was wrong. I’m ready to try something new. And people always find ways to dig in. I mean, I guess it’s part of our kind of set of cognitive biases that people find ways to discount new evidence and to say, Well, no, I really was right or wrong. We just haven’t tested it in the right way yet. I mean, that’s, that’s always kind of part of it. So that argues that, yeah, finding ways to steer more money to younger people who are, you know, less weighed down by the kind of reputational effects they would feel from trying a new idea. That’s probably a good idea.
Will Jarvis 19:52
It definitely sounds helpful. I’m curious what your take is on. It seems like the the flip side of this coin could be you I could come back and say, well, Stuart, maybe it’s something like, it’s gotten so difficult to get to the frontier, it takes you like, you know, until you’re 40 to actually get to the frontier of some of these fields. You mentioned something in the outline, which reminded me of this thought I had. And in high school, it’s like, man, you know, they’re teaching us calculus, but 400 years ago, we hadn’t even come up with calculus yet. Yeah. Right. And so the frontier, like keeps getting, you know, and are there limits to this? Oh, what are your thoughts there?
Stuart Buck 20:26
Yeah, there may be something to that as well. I mean, that’s, yeah, this this issues is really complicated when you get down to it. So yeah, I think the the analogy I mentioned to you earlier, or the example I mentioned earlier, was that, you know, in the early 50s, late 40s, you know, you could get somewhere in biology by saying, I’m going to figure out the structure of DNA. And so when Crick and Watson and also the Rosalind Franklin, who they didn’t credit, you know, publish the structure of DNA, and I think it was 1953. That’s a huge advance, right? Today that you can’t get anywhere by saying, I’m going to figure out the structure of DNA. It’s, that’s old news, right? You learned it in in 10th grade biology, right. That’s the the great scientific advance of 70 years ago becomes just kind of a standard textbook material in high school today. You’re exactly right, so. So today, if you want to make advances in molecular biology, you’ve got maybe an additional 70 years of material to learn, and so that you can figure out where to advance the frontier, in that field, compared to where someone was 70 years ago. So maybe in any given scientific field, it just builds up and builds up over time. And so maybe it’s possible that, you know, that people come along later, just find it harder to, you know, or it takes longer to master all the material that they would need to know in order to figure out what could be next. But at the same time, there are lots of new academic fields, or new advances that come up. So you know, 100 years ago, there was really no such thing as genetics, or neuroscience, or information theory or AI research, or, I mean, any number of fields that we now have. So maybe there will be new scientific fields, you know, 50 years from now that someone who’s young and brilliant, might be able to come up with the germination of a new idea that sets often in a new direction. So I think maybe we need to think about it make making sure there’s spaces and funding for people to kind of explore new directions or come up with new ideas for combining new scientific in forming new scientific fields.
Will Jarvis 22:29
Got it? I’m curious, this question is related to something you said just just a little bit earlier in that piece, it’s, you know, have we is is part of what’s gone on the fact that we’ve kind of weeded out the weirdos to some extent, and that, you know, the people that now can win grants, they’re good at sales, and you know, they have to be decent at science too. But really, what you’re selecting for in this kind of evolutionary process, is can you go out and win grants? Not? Can you, you know, have these, like, really weird and interesting ideas?
Stuart Buck 23:01
Hmm. Yeah. I mean, it’s, it’s could be an issue. I mean, there are, I guess, some people who would argue that, you know, for all the successes that we’ve had with NIH, and NSF, and other, you know, forms of scientific funding, that maybe we need more space in the world for just like completely different alternatives, that everything now is become so standardized, and bureaucratized, and kind of reduced to, you know, what, like, bureaucrats can process on and, you know, it’s become more difficult to really come up with something that’s brand new, because that doesn’t fit within the confines of, you know, what NIH and NSF are already doing, or what they view as the the source of science that we find, you know, at this place, so, yeah, do you think there could be something to that, and that’s where I hope that, you know, with the recent kind of explosion in philanthropic, it advances in science, there have been also all sorts of kind of new scientific efforts that have cropped up in the past few years. Someone called it a Cambrian explosion in a way. I hope that they do, that they do this very deliberately, that they don’t end up just falling into the trap of doing things in one particular way. And saying, this is the way I hope that, you know, throughout that new ecosystem of philanthropic Lee supported scientific institutions, that there’s much more kind of capacity for experimentation, and just trying out new approaches, new ideas, new ways of funding people. And that’s, I think that’s, I think, a very hopeful sign and maybe, maybe optimistically, fingers crossed that could even lead for lead to new political developments that, you know, would result in NIH and NSF taking new approach wishes?
Will Jarvis 25:01
That’s good. That’s good. This reminds me of a previous guest we had on Don Braven. Do you know Don, by any chance?
Stuart Buck 25:08
Not personally, I know, I know who you’re talking about. And I’ve read his book. So
Will Jarvis 25:12
Gotcha. Yeah. So he had this idea just for the audience that, you know, what we should be doing is go out, you kind of like kept this venture investor, maybe steward, you’d be this like science mature investor, you go and interview interesting people, and you just kind of give them funding. Yeah. And you ask them, Do you have an attack on a problem that like, yes, we want to explore this. And you just kind of let them go out and do it. And this was his approach, he claims to be quite successful at it. What do you think about that kind of approach of just giving people money, instead of having them like apply for grants, like, just try and have a vitro approach to science, where, perhaps for basic research, we just go find talented people, give them money to go pursue their interests? And see what comes out the other side? Should? Should some more of our science funding look like that? Or at least some percentage?
Stuart Buck 25:58
Yeah, I think definitely a larger percentage should look something like that. It probably wouldn’t work for, you know, a majority or a little in all of science, because I don’t know, then you get into the problem of like, how do you know who to trust, it’s gonna be some people finding their own friends and how you do this at scale, you know, NIH has something like 90,000 grants at any given point in time, like, and they’ve peer reviewed much, much more than that. So how do you? How do you do something like that? It’s that kind of scale. But, but yeah, I think there’s, there’s definitely a place for that kind of approach. I mean, a lot of top scientists will say, in surveys, that their approach to their own research, or their own research agenda would be different if they had funding, like what you’re talking about. In fact, there’s a Nobel Prize winner that I interviewed on my website, and he said that he thought he would be doing more creative and interesting work if he didn’t have to worry about pleasing funders. So I mean, if that’s what someone who’s a tenured standard, Stanford professor who’s won a Nobel Prize, says about his work, that he feels too tied down by the, the need to please funders. I mean, imagine how it affects like someone who’s 27, and has a brilliant idea, but doesn’t have the Nobel Prize to fall back on or the the tenured, you know, Stanford position. So. So yeah, I think that that should be a much bigger part of our scientific ecosystem.
Will Jarvis 27:28
Got it? Got it. Going off of that, you know, what do you think like a really robust science funding ecosystem looks like perhaps for the United States, you know, if you had to go find like a leverage point to fix things? Have you like gotten far enough along to kind of draw some big conclusions there, like policy prescription?
Stuart Buck 27:46
Well, I mean, so one policy prescription would or just approach would be that, like, there’s no one right way to fund science like that, in fact, thinking that there’s one right way is part of the problem, then we end up forcing everybody into the same boss, right. So so I guess, the main message I would have is that there’s no one right way to do things. And therefore, we should have a broad diverse portfolio just as you would if you were like, you know, investing, like billions of dollars for like a pension system, you would hopefully diversify not invest everything in crypto, or everything or everything in Treasury bonds, like, you know, you need to you need a wide range of possible approaches, because you know, that, that, that alone, what’s going to help you, you know, kind of maximize your returns, because you have some safe investments, you have some more risky investments that might fail, but that might pay off. Extraordinarily, I think we should be taking that same kind of portfolio approach across science. And we should be learning from what we do in science and learn in science funding, we should be more deliberately experimenting, trying new things, and trying as best as we can to measure the impact of doing things in different ways. And so I guess one policy prescription I would have, though, in order to kind of institutionalize this approach to innovation is some is modeling on something called the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation. And so that’s, I don’t know if you’d call it an agency, but it’s like a unit or team or whatever within Medicare and Medicaid, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. And it was set up by the Affordable Care Act with funding at a billion dollars a year. And the whole point of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation is to try new ideas that might cut costs for Medicare Medicaid, without harming quality or that might improve quality without without raising costs, so that you can bring costs and quality into more alignment. Because because one of the big problems in medical spending is that we pay through the nose and then we don’t get back greater results that could be like population wide like right not doing so great in terms of lifespan or our health outcomes? So the big question in healthcare, like, how can we stop spending so much? And how can we get better outcomes? So you have this massive government bureaucracy that spends upwards of a trillion dollars a year? How do you get it to improve? Well, one way was to set up the center for innovation, where the whole point is that now you have people whose job it is to think of new ideas, and to test dip, test out different ways of let’s say, paying doctors paying nursing homes, paying hospitals, or measuring their quality, and then trying to measure and see the effects and see what works. And if something does work, then try to get the rest of the agency or Medicare, Medicaid to adopt it. I think that’s a brilliant idea, to you know, to have within government agencies is a innovation team, that that can really specialize in thinking new ideas. And so I would argue that NIH and NSF and others should have an innovation team. Again, that’s that’s solely focused on like, how can we experiment? How can we try new ideas? How can we diversify what we’re doing? How can we measure what works? And focus on what works and stop doing things that are overly bureaucratic and giving us bad results? So So yeah, that that that I guess, would be the policy prescription is not any one particular method of of doing science, but institutionalizing innovation, I think that that would be a really key move forward.
Will Jarvis 31:28
I really, I really liked that. And I, I’ve had this suspicion, you know, this idea of like, I really like the idea of like, having innovation teams with these large bureaucracies that have like license to try more and different things. But I do wonder, is there something about the political economy of these bureaucracies where, okay, you know, we set up an innovation team, perhaps you and I are on it, we come up with some weird idea, we come up with 100 ideas, but one of them’s like, you know, it’s really weird, but we try it anyway. And the New York Times gets a hold of it, or some journalist gets a hold of it. And you know, they’re like, Hey, this is all this agency’s been doing it. This is all anyone sees in the press, it goes viral. And then suddenly, we clamped down on the innovation team, because it’s like, you know, you’re making the Medicare look bad. Is that like an endemic problem? Or am I just kind of overthinking that process? Well,
Stuart Buck 32:15
I mean, I think that could be a problem. But I think it’s even worse problem with, you know, the existing agencies right now. So if you go to the, you know, NIH Director, NSF director right now and say, Hey, I’ve got like, 100, new or, you know, 50, new ideas for ways you could do things they would they would sell you basically, look, I’m already overworked as it is. No one in Congress is asking me to do this. If I did try your ideas, like the best case scenario is that no one pays attention, but probably someone’s going to complain. And then then I get called in front of Congress and asked, like, why are you doing this? This wasn’t even your job. So, you know, that’s, that’s why innovation sometimes doesn’t get very far in government bureaucracy. So but then that’s why I think if you have a group of people who have been specifically authorized and given the mission, try crazy things and see if it works. And I mean, now you have an audience, for people that are willing to like, try try crazy things. And now they have like a statutory mandate, and they have, hopefully, some money to do it. And so that makes it easier for them. I mean, you could still get criticized, but at least they have, you know, the authorization and the expectation that that’s the sort of thing they’re supposed to be doing. So, hopefully, that would raise the chances of working out.
Will Jarvis 33:28
Definitely, definitely. I love that. And, and how do you think about trying to implement like policy ideas like that? Is it like, you know, kind of like Alex STAPs and Caleb’s Institute for progress model where you maybe try to use the secret Congress or something, you go to DC and like, lobby to agencies? Is it like, you know, calling your congressperson like, like, where are the good leverage points here, and you might not be comfortable talking about them? And that’s fine. But I’m just curious in general, like how you think about that?
Stuart Buck 33:55
Right? Well, I mean, it’s, it’s probably a long, slow road, no matter what I mean, so recently, there, there was a health version of ARPA, they got launched ARPA h, is what it’s called. And that’s exciting new innovation within health funding. But it took several years. I mean, it people were talking about that it that idea, at least since 2017. Actually, since then, there’s a guy named Robert Cook Deegan, who’s at Arizona State, who I found out he told me that he he wrote an article arguing that there should be a health version of DARPA, he wrote this in 1997. But no one really paid attention to it. And so the idea languished out there. And then people other people independently came up with the idea and 20 around 2016 2017. So, so yeah, they, I mean, they started arguing for it and writing articles about it. And, you know, I mean, at some point, it has to cross over into like, interaction with the folks at the White House who got behind it and so forth. And then, ultimately into legislation appropriations. So, you know, it took several years. And if you want to go back to 1987, it took 25 years for that idea to become reality. So, I mean, I think it’s, it’s a long, slow process to get this kind of innovation. But I also think it’s super important because, you know, the NIH alone is spending over $40 billion every single year. Right. So, you know, it’s kind of like the saying that, you know, what’s the best time to plant a tree? You know, 100 years ago, or today, right? Yeah, sure. It’d be nice if you planted a tree 100 years ago, and it was like a thriving, you know, huge tree that provides shade and so forth. But there’s no, if you haven’t planted it, then you might as well start now. Okay, so. So the field working on policy change for these big institutions, you know, probably does take some time, but all the more reason to get started. And hopefully, five or 10 years from now, there will be, you know, a set of sets of policy proposals, there will be politicians, and you know, maybe presidents and White Houses that are interested in taking them up. I mean, it’s very hard to predict, and you have to be opportunistic when the chance arises. But, you know, all the more reason, though, to start arguing for these things and making the case and putting the proposals out there today.
Will Jarvis 36:16
And do you think, do you see that kind of as your main role is, you know, putting these ideas out into the ether, having policy proposals ready to go, and all these things like so that they are set up? So when the chance arises, you can like kind of, you know, help encourage, like, good policy be written?
Stuart Buck 36:33
Yeah, I would, I would definitely say that that’s one of the main purposes of a good science project. Yeah, totally.
Will Jarvis 36:40
That’s good. How there’s a risk and acid step question. Because, you know, you got to work for these people. But how competent? Do you see is the federal government, like the funding, bureaucracy? Are they like, really competent, competent people just stuck in like bad incentive systems? Are they not competent people that and good, instead of systems? Like some mix? Of the two?
Stuart Buck 37:02
Probably, yeah. Probably some mix of the two. I mean, yeah. So so a lot of the scientific agencies like NIH, and CDC and FDA have come under a lot of criticism, lately, for being slow and responding to COVID. And for any number of reasons, right. But, you know, even though there’s a lot of validity to those criticisms, and even though there’s lots of ways you can point to, you know, things that can be improved, I mean, on an individual basis, like if you, you know, talk to talk to people who work at those agencies, I mean, you get the feeling that, you know, you sort of smart, competent people who are doing, trying to do the best they know how to do within a system that, you know, most of which is beyond their control. So, I think, I think that’s probably true for the vast majority of public servants. And, you know, people that work at federal agencies, you know, they’re, they’re showing up to work, they’re doing what they can do, they oftentimes might sympathize with, you know, trying new ways of doing things. But they don’t have the time, they don’t have the mission, or the mandate to do that. So. So they, they themselves might end up being a little frustrated by their inability to change the overall system. And so I think that that’s in a way, you know, hopefully one way that outsiders you know, like, like think tanks or advocacy groups, and hopefully, one way they can be helpful is to, in some ways, like, provide a little pressure a little, you know, outside pressure that, you know, people who are sympathetic within the agencies will say, All right, now, I can point to that, you know, they’re outside group saying that we should do X, Y, or Z, you know, so maybe we should we should try things that way. Right. So, that’s, that’s another way that, you know, kind of policy change can happen.
Will Jarvis 38:45
That’s good. That’s good. It makes a lot of sense. I’m curious, we talked a lot about, you know, government funding science. I want to talk about, you know, corporations funding science, we used to have these great kind of big innovation labs, Bell Labs, I think about all these, you know, Xerox PARC, a lot of these innovations came out of these kind of basic research labs at large corporations. And we do have, like, you know, Fang companies have a lot of research labs, a lot of AI labs in particular, which do seem to be creating innovations, but it doesn’t seem to be at the same scale, at least to me. Is it your sense that corporate innovation labs, like don’t work as well now? Do they work as well, but they’re just not as publicized? What do you think’s going on there?
Stuart Buck 39:26
That’s a really good question. I mean, I do you think that, you know, like, like Bell Labs, I think they benefited in one way from having this from basically being associated with at&t that had this nationwide telephone monopoly. So they’re making all this money because they’re an ad nationwide monopoly. And so they don’t have to worry about at that point, like they hadn’t been broken up, because it was in the 80s yet, but they don’t have to worry about money like they’ve got more money than they know what to do with they don’t have to worry about like selling a product this year or that next year. Um, so they had the freedom. And they also, I think probably at the time, at&t felt maybe some political pressure to like, show that we’re doing something good. Yeah, we’re not just a monopoly nationwide monopolist, it’s taking advantage of people, but look at look at what we’re doing with our science, right. So if there could have been part of that, as well. And so anyway, you have a group of people at Bell Labs, who were working on problems that in some way touched upon, like, telephone communications. So that touched upon like, were transistors or information theory, and so forth, and so on, but had the flexibility and the freedom to do what they wanted, without the pressure to publish, or without the pressure to produce something that is a marketable product, you know, like, now, they have the more intellectual freedom than that, so. And they might have benefited of wealth from possibly from, you know, some of these discoveries, perhaps being a little more low hanging fruit compared to, you know, today, like, you know, inventing the transistor in the first place was a great innovation. You know, at a certain point, like, you know, we’re trying to cram more and more transistors into smaller and smaller spaces. So at some point, you had a kind of limit as to what anybody can do there and maybe becomes harder to truly innovate. So maybe you have to come up with new questions, new ideas, new new fields of innovation, and so forth. But yeah, the results, it’s hard to say, I mean, so like Google has been you used to be called Google X. But since they switched their corporate name to alphabet, now, it’s just called x. And they have a big campus where they do all kinds of projects, but I don’t know, I’m just I’m not, I guess I’m just not really sure what they’ve been doing, or why. So or what the outputs have been. And maybe that maybe they’re doing great stuff. And they’re just, yeah, I’m just not aware of it. So yeah, that’s yeah, I’m not not really sure what else to say.
Will Jarvis 41:57
Yeah, maybe unclear as well. That makes that makes a lot of sense. Well, Stuart, are you down for roundup overrated or underrated?
Stuart Buck 42:06
Sure. Yeah. I can’t guarantee I have any great answers. But yeah.
Will Jarvis 42:11
Well, I started I’ll throw out a term. He told me whether it’s overrated or underrated properly, right, and, and perhaps why. So the first term is flamenco, and I may have pronounced that bridge that pronunciation guitars,
Stuart Buck 42:23
flamenco guitars, and that’s interesting. I mean, I feel like probably for a lot of people, they aren’t rated at all, like, probably a lot of people don’t even think about it very much. You know, probably, amongst classical guitarists, they might, in some ways, like, looked down. And Flamenco is like, you know, a little too, like kind of flashy, and not as like, pristine as is in musical terms or whatever. So maybe underrated from that perspective. Yeah.
Will Jarvis 42:57
That’s good. That’s good. You know, so you were trained as a classical guitarist, correct? Does any of that work, you know, carry through today at all in what you do?
Stuart Buck 43:06
And what I do? I mean, not in any direct sense. I mean, I actually, I recorded this classical guitar album, about 12 years ago, and it still makes money on Spotify. Some apps like Spotify will send me like a direct deposit of, you know, sometimes 100 $150 in a month. And I just looked at that, to my complete astonishment realize that the the top track on that album has been streamed over 7 million times. Wow, modify. So I’m completely amazed by that. But I guess that explains where the money’s coming from. So I can’t complain.
Will Jarvis 43:48
That’s cool. Let’s go. Houston, Texas, overrated or underrated?
Stuart Buck 43:56
Probably underrated. I mean, there there. There are lots of reasons to dislike Houston. I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s flat. There’s not a lot of you know, like, it’s not like, you know, a lot of gorgeous scenery. There’s no redwood forests, or mountains or anything like that. It’s hot and humid. The whole the whole place, the whole landscape, you know, naturally wants to be a swamp. And so there’s like, just like, swampy areas everywhere. And then lots and lots of drainage systems that are built to drain water out to the Gulf. I mean, it is one of those places where you think, Oh, my God, how did why did people ever decide to live here when they hadn’t invented air conditioning yet? But I guess because of the availability of ports and the Gulf and so forth. But so yeah, I mean, there’s there there are ways in which is underrated. But it’s a bustling economy. It’s extraordinarily diverse and one of the most diverse cities in the nation. So you have lots and lots of people from around the world that come to Houston because it’s easy. to buy a home or to find a job. And so that makes it a kind of diverse and a place with a lot of vitality and that way. So, yeah, there’s there’s a lot going there’s a lot. There are lots of ways to like kind of live a good life in Houston if you don’t mind the heat.
Will Jarvis 45:17
It’s a good deal. It’s good to new science, Alexei goosies, new science overrated or underrated.
Stuart Buck 45:22
That’s interesting. So maybe, correct. I mean, can I say correctly rated? China thinks holy? Yeah. I mean, I think it’s a very ambitious idea. I mean, I’ve heard Alexei say, you know, his ambition is to form a new NIH, which is, I mean, if you think about it, that’s the astonishing, ambitious, because you know, NIH, as I said, 90,000 grants 40 possibility a year. So, I mean, then in that sense, it probably that doesn’t seem likely. I mean, but if you can direct enough philanthropic funding or prep, I don’t know, perhaps over time funding from elsewhere, maybe funding from industry, I’m not sure. into, you know, giving scientists training of scientists and giving them more freedom flexibility, like some of the ideas were talking about earlier. I think that that has a lot of potential.
Will Jarvis 46:17
That’s good. That’s good. Yeah. Is funding academic research? Is that underrated or overrated?
Stuart Buck 46:23
I think you must pick up on that, because I wrote about that recently. So it’s right. Um, I think it’s something that, to me, has been underrated or under provided. And maybe that’s the better way of putting it. But I feel like that a lot of effective Ultras, particularly on the kind of global health and development side of things have maybe arguably gotten a little bit stagnant and their approach to giving and, I mean, it’s like, they’ve been talking about malaria and bed nets and do warming pills. And, you know, a few very discreet interventions that they value, because there’s there’s been a lot of evidence that they work. But I feel like the the scope and scale of all the problems that humanity deals with, seems a lot broader than just like, you know, three or four interventions that where you have the absolute best evidence, I feel like that there, there needs to be a bigger and broader push to come up with new ideas and new innovations, new new interventions, new programs, new policies, and to develop more evidence and have a kind of r&d process that is laid out in a systematic, coherent agenda. And that directs a lot of money into finding the next list of interventions and ideas that would be tremendously valuable to the developing world.
Will Jarvis 47:48
That’s great. That’s great. Well, Stuart, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show. Where can people find you? Where should we send them?
Stuart Buck 47:56
Sure. I’m on Twitter at? Well, it’s twitter.com at Stuart Bach one. So the number one, and then also good science project.org. So
Will Jarvis 48:08
Excellent. Excellent. We’ll send people there. I’ll put his link down in the show notes. Thanks so much, Stuart.
Stuart Buck 48:13
Yeah, thank you. Really appreciate it.
Will Jarvis 48:19
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