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Covid-19 has shown it is time to invest in Britain’s scientists

Covid-19 has shown it is time to invest in Britain’s scientists

Let’s start the New Year with a very positive point.

The speed of scientific innovation seems to be accelerating sharply. And it is innovation which ultimately drives our health, wealth and well-being.

The types of problems which have previously taken years or even decades to solve are being cracked in record times.

The development of the vaccines is of course a tremendous scientific achievement. It is the one unequivocally Good Thing to come out of the Covid crisis.

The typical time scale from the initial idea to developing a successful drug has been around ten years. Yet the vaccines were created and licensed for use in less than ten months.

But 2020 saw an advance in science which is even more exciting and important.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been getting a bad press lately. Stories proliferate of how “algorithms” have led to bad decisions. The fiasco over the A-level results in August for example.

It has streams of Luddite detractors at a more intellectual level. They assert, for example, that it can never really think like a human.

The Deep Mind team at Google are famous, in some circles at least, for having created AI algorithms which can wipe the floor with human world champions at both chess and Go. The game of Go is so complex that in comparison chess looks easy.

So what, many may feel. These are only games.

But at the end of last year, the team announced that AI had solved one of the great challenges of biology.

Their algorithm AlphaFold can predict how proteins fold from a chain of amino acids into 3D shapes that carry out life’s tasks.

Human researchers have made some progress in this area. But it has been slow, and many attempts have failed. Structures have been solved for only about 170,000 of the more than 200 million proteins discovered across life forms.

All very techie and incomprehensible to most of us. But tremendously important.

Science is one of the two top scientific journals in the world. The tone of its pieces is usually measured and guarded. The journal is certainly not given to hyperbole. But in Science, leading biologists have described the achievement as “fantastic” and one which will “change the future of structural biology”.

AlphaFold has not quite solved the problem completely, but it has advanced the science of this topic by decades.

In practical terms, it could, for example, enable drug designers to work out the structure of every protein in new and dangerous pathogens like SARS-CoV-2. This is a key step in the hunt for molecules to block them.

Crucially, the team has agreed to reveal sufficient details of AlphaFold for other research groups to re-create it. No wonder that biologists are excited.

Both the Astra Zeneca vaccine and AlphaFold are a particular triumph for Britain.

The Astra-Zeneca vaccine was developed in conjunction with Oxford University, and Deep Mind was acquired by Google from the computer science department at UCL.

The government must devote more resources to the world beating scientists in our top universities.

As published in City AM Wednesday 6th January 2021
Image: Laboratory by Belova59 via Pixabay 
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Following the science? This government lacks a basic grasp of the scientific method

Following the science? This government lacks a basic grasp of the scientific method

Verification and validation. It is hard to imagine a more nerdy phrase.

But it is, in essence, how science makes progress. It is what we have to do to check whether a scientific claim or theory is correct.

And it has been seriously neglected during the Covid-19 crisis.

Just over a century ago, for example, Albert Einstein revolutionised the world of physics with his general theory of relativity. The verification part of the process was to check that his high-powered maths did what he said it did.

Einstein claimed his theory was superior to the very longstanding one of Isaac Newton. This had to be validated by confronting it with real world evidence before it was believed. Some of the tests were pretty esoteric, involving things like fluctuations in the orbit of Mercury.  But Einstein’s theory passed with flying colours. It was both verified and validated.

Last week, Matt Hancock, the secretary of state for health, claimed that without the new lockdown measures there could be “hundreds of thousands of deaths”.

A quick but effective piece of validation shows the scientific model on which this is based is most unlikely to be true.

The evidence now suggests that, at the peak of the epidemic in late March/early April, there were around 100,000 new cases each day. Total deaths in these months were around 40,000.

So to get “hundreds of thousands” of deaths — which means at least 200,000 — simple arithmetic shows that there would have to be a minimum of half a million new cases every day.

We can add to this calculation the combination of better knowledge of how to treat the virus and the continued shielding efforts of the most vulnerable, which have caused the death rate to fall sharply.

If Hancock’s claim is correct, there would have to be a million new cases a day at a second peak.

Even Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance in their horror slideshow last week only felt able to claim 50,000 cases each day.

But the gloomy pair appear to have ignored the basic principles of verification and validation way back in February and March.

The lockdown was triggered by the predictions of Neil Ferguson and his team at Imperial College. Unless it was introduced, they projected, there would be 510,000 deaths.

Almost as soon as it was published, a range of scientists raised questions about verification of Ferguson’s model. Did the computer code do what was claimed? Ferguson himself tweeted “I wrote the thousands of lines of undocumented code 13+ years ago to model flu pandemics”.  For many weeks after it was not available for scrutiny.

It was rapidly pointed out that the model did not allow for any change in behaviour.  In the face of a pandemic, it assumed that people would carry on behaving exactly as they had always done — hardly consistent with the evidence of how people really do behave in these circumstances. Yet this was the basis for the lockdown restrictions we have seen over the past six months.

Verification and validation: boring words indeed. But their neglect by the government’s advisers has saddled us with the enormous social and economic costs of lockdown.

As published in City AM Wednesday 7th October 2020
Image: COVID-19 testing by Tom Wolf via Flickr  CC BY 2.0
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‘Expertise’ has become a tool of the liberal establishment to drown out opposing views

‘Expertise’ has become a tool of the liberal establishment to drown out opposing views

The row over the Conservative-supporting journalist Toby Young’s appointment to the universities watchdog has been intense. Despite the relative obscurity of this public position, the left wing Twitterati have been besides themselves with rage. The affair has culminated in his resignation, over some tweets he posted. They are certainly a bit near the knuckle, to say the least.

Yet a great deal of Twitter consists of verbal abuse of one kind or another. Perhaps sensitive souls should steer clear of this medium of communication.

There was an altogether more sinister and fundamental aspect to the attacks on Young. He was deemed by many academics to lack suitable qualifications for the post. He did not have sufficient “expertise”.

Danny Blanchflower, a Gordon Brown appointment to the Monetary Policy Committee, called him “totally unqualified” and suggested that universities should boycott the Office for Students until Young is fired. It would be a diversion to recall Blanchflower’s own prediction that unemployment under George Osborne could rise to 4 or even 5 million. Forecasting errors of this magnitude seem an essential qualification to be on the MPC.

Young was educated at both Oxford and Harvard and taught at Cambridge. He is a founder of the successful New Schools Network. So it may not be readily apparent to the non-expert why he lacked the skills to serve on a body which regulates universities.

Perhaps a clue lies in the abuse of Patrick Minford in the latest issue of the newsletter of the Royal Economic Society (RES). Minford, a distinguished academic economist, is a strong supporter of Brexit.

The BBC is attacked in the newsletter for giving publicity to a report by Minford published by the group Economists for Free Trade. An Oxford professor is cited with approval for saying that Minford is not an expert in international trade. His views on the topic are those of a “maverick”.

Very few economists specialise in international trade. I have to confess here that I was one of the few to take the then available option on international trade theory in my final year at Cambridge. But I did so on the grounds that it seemed pretty straightforward and easy.

But a lack of this esoteric expertise has not prevented the “overwhelming majority of the economics profession”, according to the RES newsletter, from disapproving wholeheartedly of Brexit.

Underlying the great turmoil of politics at the moment is precisely the view that the “experts” are less trustworthy and objective than they purport to be. The suspicion is that they attempt to appear knowledgeable to impose the policies they prefer all along.

If we have a question on quantum physics, we might reasonably rely on an answer from Stephen Hawking. More prosaically, we can rely on an engineer to build us a bridge.

But many economic and social issues, such as Brexit or regulating universities, are far more complex. They do not admit answers which are scientifically proven in the same way.

What we are seeing is a concerted attempt by the metropolitan liberal elite to impose a bogus consensus on us. One which, dressed up as “expertise”, excludes any other views.

As published in City AM Wednesday 10th January 2018

Image: Twitter screen by Photo-Mix is licensed under CC by 0.0
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