Making every researcher seek grants is a broken model
Also: cellular reprogramming, pneumatic launch systems, and terraforming Mars
Would you like to join private Roots of Progress events?
We’re kicking off a series of private dinner/reception events for potential major donors. Each one will feature writers and scholars on a featured topic (such as energy, urbanism, etc.), including some of our fellows. The attendees will include other progress writers, founders/technologists, academics, and leaders of other progress organizations.
If you’re in one of those categories, or a potential major donor, and would like to get invited when we’re coming to your city, reply to this email or contact me at email@example.com. Upcoming events are being planned already in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, New York, and possibly Austin.
In this update:
Full text below, or click any link above to jump to an individual post on the blog. If this digest gets cut off in your email, click the headline above to read it on the web.
I haven’t had time recently to put together any links digests or “what I’ve been reading” updates, sorry. If you are particularly missing those, let me know and that will help motivate me to bring them back!
Subscribe for free to get posts by email:
Making every researcher seek grants is a broken model
When Galileo wanted to study the heavens through his telescope, he got money from those legendary patrons of the Renaissance, the Medici. To win their favor, when he discovered the moons of Jupiter, he named them the Medicean Stars. Other scientists and inventors offered flashy gifts, such as Cornelis Drebbel’s perpetuum mobile (a sort of astronomical clock) given to King James, who made Drebbel court engineer in return. The other way to do research in those days was to be independently wealthy: the Victorian model of the gentleman scientist.
Eventually we decided that requiring researchers to seek wealthy patrons or have independent means was not the best way to do science. Today, researchers, in their role as “principal investigators” (PIs), apply to science funders for grants. In the US, the NIH spends nearly $48B annually, and the NSF over $11B, mainly to give such grants. Compared to the Renaissance, it is a rational, objective, democratic system.
However, I have come to believe that this principal investigator model is deeply broken and needs to be replaced.
That was the thought at the top of my mind coming out of a working group on “Accelerating Science” hosted by the Santa Fe Institute a few months ago. (The thoughts in this essay were inspired by many of the participants, but I take responsibility for any opinions expressed here. My thinking on this was also influenced by a talk given by James Phillips at a previous metascience conference. My own talk at the workshop was written up here earlier.)
What should we do instead of the PI model? Funding should go in a single block to a relatively large research organization of, say, hundreds of scientists. This is how some of the most effective, transformative labs in the world have been organized, from Bell Labs to the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. It has been referred to as the “block funding” model.
Here’s why I think this model works:
A principal investigator has to play multiple roles. They have to do science (researcher), recruit and manage grad students or research assistants (manager), maintain a lab budget (administrator), and write grants (fundraiser). These are different roles, and not everyone has the skill or inclination to do them all. The university model adds teaching, a fifth role.
The block organization allows for specialization: researchers can focus on research, managers can manage, and one leader can fundraise for the whole org. This allows each person to do what they are best at and enjoy, and it frees researchers from spending 30–50% of their time writing grants, as is typical for PIs.
I suspect it also creates more of an opportunity for leadership in research. Research leadership involves having a vision for an area to explore that will be highly fruitful—semiconductors, molecular biology, etc.—and then recruiting talent and resources to the cause. This seems more effective when done at the block level.
Side note: the distinction I’m talking about here, between block funding and PI funding, doesn’t say anything about where the funding comes from or how those decisions are made. But today, researchers are often asked to serve on committees that evaluate grants. Making funding decisions is yet another role we add to researchers, and one that also deserves to be its own specialty (especially since having researchers evaluate their own competitors sets up an inherent conflict of interest).
Research freedom and time horizons
There’s nothing inherent to the PI grant model that dictates the size of the grant, the scope of activities it covers, the length of time it is for, or the degree of freedom it allows the researcher. But in practice, PI funding has evolved toward small grants for incremental work, with little freedom for the researcher to change their plans or strategy.
I suspect the block funding model naturally lends itself to larger grants for longer time periods that are more at the vision level. When you’re funding a whole department, you’re funding a mission and placing trust in the leadership of the organization.
Also, breakthroughs are unpredictable, but the more people you have working on things, the more regularly they will happen. A lab can justify itself more easily with regular achievements. In this way one person’s accomplishment provides cover to those who are still toiling away.
Who evaluates researchers
In the PI model, grant applications are evaluated by funding agencies: in effect, each researcher is evaluated by the external world. In the block model, a researcher is evaluated by their manager and their peers. James Phillips illustrates with a diagram:
A manager who knows the researcher well, who has been following their work closely, and who talks to them about it regularly, can simply make better judgments about who is doing good work and whose programs have potential. (And again, developing good judgment about researchers and their potential is a specialized role—see point 1).
Further, when a researcher is evaluated impersonally by an external agency, they need to write up their work formally, which adds overhead to the process. They need to explain and justify their plans, which leads to more conservative proposals. They need to show outcomes regularly, which leads to more incremental work. And funding will disproportionately flow to people who are good at fundraising (which, again, deserves to be a specialized role).
To get scientific breakthroughs, we want to allow talented, dedicated people to pursue hunches for long periods of time. This means we need to trust the process, long before we see the outcome. Several participants in the workshop echoed this theme of trust. Trust like that is much stronger when based on a working relationship, rather than simply on a grant proposal.
If the block model is a superior alternative, how do we move towards it? I don’t have a blueprint. I doubt that existing labs will transform themselves into this model. But funders could signal their interest in funding labs like this, and new labs could be created or proposed on this model and seek such funding. I think the first step is spreading this idea.
PS: After publishing this, Michael Nielsen (who has thought about and researched this much more than I have) argued that I have oversimplified and made the case too starkly:
Lots of people make thoughtful proposals for the “correct” approach to funding. They argue that funding scheme A is better than B, or vice versa. This is rhetorically appealing. But I think it’s a mistake. What we need—as Kanjun Qiu and I argue in “A Vision of Metascience”—is a much more diverse set of funding strategies. The right question isn’t “which approach is best” but rather: what mechanisms are we using to adjust the overall portfolio of strategies?
Read his whole thread. Maybe it would be better to say that the PI model is overused today, and block funding is underused.
Original post: rootsofprogress.org/the-block-funding-model-for-science
Cellular reprogramming, pneumatic launch systems, and terraforming Mars
In December, I went to the Foresight Institute’s Vision Weekend 2023 in San Francisco. I had a lot of fun talking to a bunch of weird and ambitious geeks about the glorious abundant technological future. Here are few things I learned about (with the caveat that this is mostly based on informal conversations with only basic fact-checking, not deep research):
Aging doesn’t only happen to your body: it happens at the level of individual cells. Over time, cells accumulate waste products and undergo epigenetic changes that are markers of aging.
But wait—when a baby is born, it has young cells, even though it grew out of cells that were originally from its older parents. That is, the egg and sperm cells might be 20, 30, or 40 years old, but somehow when they turn into a baby, they get reset to biological age zero. This process is called “reprogramming,” and it happens soon after fertilization.
It turns out that cell reprogramming can be induced by certain proteins, known as the Yamanaka factors, after their discoverer (who won a Nobel for this in 2012). Could we use those proteins to reprogram our own cells, making them youthful again?
Maybe. There is a catch: the Yamanaka factors not only clear waste out of cells, they also reset them to become stem cells. You do not want to turn every cell in your body into a stem cell. You don’t even want to turn a small number of them into stem cells: it can give you cancer (which kind of defeats the purpose of a longevity technology).
But there is good news: when you expose cells to the Yamanaka factors, the waste cleanup happens first, and the stem cell transformation happens later. If we can carefully time the exposure, maybe we can get the target effect without the damaging side effects.
This is tricky: different tissues respond on different timelines, so you can’t apply the treatment uniformly over the body. There are a lot of details to be worked out here. But it’s an intriguing line of research for longevity, and it’s one of the avenues being explored at Retro Bio, among other places. Here’s a Derek Lowe article with more info and references.
The BFG orbital launch system
If we’re ever going to have a space economy, it has to be a lot cheaper to launch things into space. Space Shuttle launches cost over $65,000/kg, and even the Falcon Heavy costs $1500/kg. Compare to shipping costs on Earth, which are only a few dollars per kilogram.
A big part of the high launch cost in traditional systems is the rocket, which is discarded with each launch. SpaceX is bringing costs down by making reusable rockets that land gently rather than crashing into the ocean, and by making very big rockets for economies of scale (Elon Musk has speculated that Starship could bring costs as low as $10/kg, although this is a ways off, since right now fuel costs alone are close to that amount). But what if we didn’t need a rocket at all? Rockets are pretty much our only option for propulsion in space, but what if we could give most of the impulse to the payload on Earth?
J. Storrs Hall has proposed the “space pier,” a runway 300 km long mounted atop towers 100 km tall. The payload takes an elevator 100 km up to the top of the tower, thus exiting the atmosphere and much of Earth’s gravity well. Then a linear induction motor accelerates it into orbit along the 300 km track. You could do this with a mere 10 Gs of acceleration, which is survivable by human passengers. Think of it like a Big Friendly Giant (BFG) picking up your payload and then throwing it into orbit.
Hall estimates that this could bring launch costs down to $10/kg, if the pier could be built for a mere $10 billion. The only tiny little catch with the space pier is that there is no technology in existence that could build it, and no construction material that a 100 km tower could be made of. Hall suggests that with “mature nanotechnology” we could build the towers out of diamond. OK. So, probably not going to happen this decade.
What can we do now, with today’s technology? Let’s drop the idea of using this for human passengers and just consider relatively durable freight. Now we can use much higher G-forces, which means we don’t need anything close to 300 km of distance to accelerate over. And, does it really have to be 100 km tall? Yes, it’s nice to start with an altitude advantage, and with no atmosphere, but both of those problems can be overcome with sufficient initial velocity. At this point we’re basically just talking about an enormous cannon (a very different kind of BFG).
This is what Longshot Space is doing. Build a big long tube in the desert. Put the payload in it, seal the end with a thin membrane, and pump the air out to create a vacuum. Then rapidly release some compressed gasses behind the payload, which bursts through the membrane and exits the tube at Mach 25.
One challenge with this is that a gas can only expand as fast as the speed of sound in that gas. In air this is, of course, a lot less than Mach 25. One thing that helps is to use a lighter gas, in which the speed of sound is higher, such as helium or (for the very brave) hydrogen. Another part of the solution is to give the payload a long, wedge-shaped tail. The expanding gasses push sideways on this tail, which through the magic of simple machines translates into a much faster push forwards. There’s a brief discussion and illustration of the pneumatics in this video.
Now, if you are trying to envision “big long tube in the desert”, you might be wondering: is the tube angled upwards or something? No. It is basically lying flat on the ground. It is expensive to build a long straight thing that points up: you have to dig a deep hole and/or build a tall tower. What about putting it on the side of a mountain, which naturally points up? Building things on mountains is also hard; in addition, mountains are special and nobody wants to give you one. It’s much easier to haul lots of materials into the middle of the desert; also there is lots of room out there and the real estate is cheap.
Next you might be wondering: if the tube is horizontal, isn’t it pointed in the wrong direction to get to space? I thought space was up? Well, yes. There are a few things going on here. One is that if you travel far enough in a straight line, the Earth will curve away from you and you will eventually find yourself in space. Another is that if you shape the projectile such that its center of pressure is in the right place relative to its center of mass, then it will naturally angle upward when it hits the atmosphere. Lastly, if you are trying to get into orbit, most of the velocity you need is actually horizontal anyway.
In fact, if and when you reach a circular orbit, you will find that all of your velocity is horizontal. This means that there is no way to get into orbit purely ballistically, with a single impulse imparted from Earth. Any satellite, for instance, launched via this system will need its own rocket propulsion in order to circularize the orbit once it reaches altitude (even leaving aside continual orbital adjustments during its service lifetime). But we’re now talking about a relatively small rocket with a small amount of fuel, not the big multi-stage things that you need to blast off from the surface. And presumably someday we will be delivering food, fuel, tools, etc. to space in packages that just need to be caught by whoever is receiving them.
Longshot estimates that this system, like Starship or the space pier, could get launch costs down to about $10/kg. This might be cheap enough that launch prices could be zero, subsidized by contracts to buy fuel or maintenance, in a space-age version of “give away the razor and sell the blades.” Not only would this business model help grow the space economy, it would also prove wrong all the economists who have been telling us for decades that “there’s no such thing as a free launch.”
Mars could be terraformed in our lifetimes
Terraforming a planet sounds like a geological process, and so I had sort of thought that it would require geological timescales, or if it could really be accelerated, at least a matter of centuries or so. You drop off some algae or something on a rocky planet, and then your distant descendants return one day to find a verdant paradise. So I was surprised to learn that major changes on Mars could, in principle, be made on a schedule much shorter than a single human lifespan.
Let’s back up. Mars is a real fixer-upper of a planet. Its temperature varies widely, averaging about −60º C; its atmosphere is thin and mostly carbon dioxide. This severely depresses its real estate values.
Suppose we wanted to start by significantly warming the planet. How do you do that? Let’s assume Mars’s orbit cannot be changed—I mean, we’re going to get in enough trouble with the Sierra Club as it is—so the total flux of solar energy reaching the planet is constant. What we can do is to trap a bit more of that energy on the planet, and prevent it from radiating out into space. In other words, we need to enhance Mars’s greenhouse effect. And the way to do that is to give it a greenhouse gas.
Wait, we just said that Mars’s atmosphere is mostly CO2, which is a notorious greenhouse gas, so why isn’t Mars warm already? It’s just not enough: the atmosphere is very thin (less than 1% of the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere), and what CO2 there is only provides about 5º of warming. We’re going to need to add more GHG.
What could it be? Well, for starters, given the volumes required, it should be composed of elements that already exist on Mars. With the ingredients we have, what can we make?
Could we get more CO2 in the atmosphere? There is more CO2 on/under the surface, in frozen form, but even that is not enough for the task. We need something else.
What about CFCs? As a greenhouse gas, they are about four orders of magnitude more efficient than CO2, so we’d need a lot less of them. However, they require fluorine, which is very rare in the Martian soil, and we’d still need about 100 gigatons of it. This is not encouraging.
One thing Mars does have a good amount of is metal, such as iron, aluminum, and magnesium. Now metals, you might be thinking, are not generally known as greenhouse gases. But small particles of conductive metal, with the right size and shape, can act as one. A recent paper found through simulation that “nanorods” about 9 microns long, half the wavelength of the infrared thermal radiation given off by a planet, would scatter that radiation back to the surface (Ansari, Kite, Ramirez, Steele, and Mohseni, “Warming Mars with artificial aerosol appears to be feasible”—no preprint online, but this poster seems to represent earlier work).
Suppose we aim to warm the planet by about 30º C, enough to melt surface water in the polar regions during the summer, and bring Mars much closer to Earth temperatures. AKRSM’s simulation says that we would need to put about 400 mg/m3 of nanorods into the Martian sky, an efficiency (in warming per unit mass) more than 2000x greater than previously proposed methods.
The particles would settle out of the atmosphere slowly, at less than 1/100 the rate of natural Mars dust, so only about 30 liters/sec of them would need to be released continuously. If we used iron, this would require mining a million cubic meters of iron per year—quite a lot, but less than 1% of what we do on Earth. And the particles, like other Martian dust, would be lifted high in the atmosphere by updrafts, so they could be conveniently released from close to the surface.
Wouldn’t metal nanoparticles be potentially hazardous to breathe? Yes, but this is already a problem from Mars’s naturally dusty atmosphere, and the nanorods wouldn’t make it significantly worse. (However, this will have to be solved somehow if we’re going to make Mars habitable.)
Kite told me that if we started now, given the capabilities of Starship, we could achieve the warming in a mere twenty years. Most of that time is just getting equipment to Mars, mining the iron, manufacturing the nanorods, and then waiting about a year for Martian winds to mix them throughout the atmosphere. Since Mars has no oceans to provide thermal inertia, the actual warming after that point only takes about a month.
Kite is interested in talking to people about the design of a the nanorod factory. He wants to get a size/weight/power estimate and an outline design for the factory, to make an initial estimate of how many Starship landings would be needed. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have not yet gotten Kite and Longshot together to figure out if we can shoot the equipment directly to Mars using one really enormous space cannon.
Original post: rootsofprogress.org/vision-weekend-2023-writeup
Speaking: Foresight, Instituto Millenium, CS Monitor
A few recent-ish talks and interviews:
Foresight Institute: “Progress: An Ever-Evolving Journey”
An interview with Foresight for their Existential Hope library.
Jason envisages a future marked by dynamic, continuous progress, encapsulated in the concept of protopia. This vision diverges from a traditional notion of a utopia, and instead embraces a reality of constant, incremental improvement. In Jason’s view, progress is a journey, not a destination. It’s a series of small, significant steps that, over time, lead to profound transformations in our world.
Central to Jason’s perspective is the transformative potential of AI, paralleling historical technological leaps like the steam engine and personal computing. He views AI as a catalyst for a new era in human history, one that could redefine societal structures by making high-quality services accessible to a broader demographic. This democratization of resources, akin to services becoming as affordable as a Netflix subscription, could bridge societal gaps. However, Jason emphasizes that this protopian future requires collective agency, responsibility, and a balanced understanding of our role in shaping it. He believes that progress accelerates over time, with each innovation building upon the last, thus speeding up future advancements.
Instituto Millenium: “Toward a New Philosophy of Progress”
This is a talk I’ve given before. This recording has subtitles in Portuguese for what that’s worth. The question period begins about 31 minutes in.
Christian Science Monitor, “Pessimism or progress”
A 2023 year-in-review piece in which I am briefly quoted:
… 2023 was the year millions of people first used a generative AI program (such as ChatGPT), the next great platform for economic productivity. Though too soon to assess its impact, AI has the potential to become as powerful a change agent as the internal combustion engine, mass manufacturing, electricity, and computing itself, says Jason Crawford, a technology historian and founder of The Roots of Progress. “In the most extreme scenario, which I still think is pretty speculative but not impossible, it is the next big thing in human history – after agriculture and the Industrial Revolution.”
Subscribe for free to get posts by email: