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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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The Government scientists’ credibility is shot to pieces

The Government scientists’ credibility is shot to pieces

Imagine.  No, not the silly childish song by John Lennon.  Imagine there were no vaccines available.  What would Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health, do?

He might ask people to pay more attention to the scientific advice.

But the plain fact is that the credibility of Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief science officer, is shot to pieces.

They have cried wolf too many times and issued too many Project Fear-type projections for people to have any confidence in their pronouncements.

Without a vaccine, the government would have been forced to confront the single most damaging and destructive aspect of the whole pandemic.

Namely, the apparent inability of the ranks of epidemiologists and government scientists to understand the crucial need to alter behaviour, rather than to rely on lockdowns.

Lockdowns can only work in certain rather extreme circumstances.

They need to be harsh. They need to last for a couple of months. The country needs to seal its borders. And there needs to be a willingness to comply.

So-called “firebreak” lockdowns of a couple of weeks duration cannot work at all.

On average, Covid victims are infected for a couple of weeks. When a lockdown is imposed, many of  those infected at the time will be free of the disease when it ends. But not all. A small percentage will remain infectious.

More importantly, on day one of lockdown, other people will become infected, and still more on each subsequent day.  So a pool of infected people will emerge from lockdown, and the epidemic will spike up again.

Such is the deranged obsession with lockdowns that not only has the Labour leader, Sir Kier Starmer, been a strong enthusiast for firebreaks, they have been implemented in Wales and Northern Ireland.

But as a matter of simple logic, not opinion, they cannot work.

The same logic applies to all but the most rigorous and lengthy lockdowns.  Unless there is a fundamental shift in behaviour, the virus will simply spread again once lockdown is lifted.

A policy of successive lockdowns may very well change behaviour.  But for the worse.  With each one, the willingness to comply is reduced.

This is exactly what has been happening in the working class areas of the UK – the central belt in Scotland, the old mining valleys in Wales, whole swathes of the North and the East End plus its Essex and Kent extensions.

It is in these areas that infection rates have gone through the roof, even when lockdowns were in place. It is not that the rules were insufficiently strict. It is that people have paid less and less attention to them.

Government scientists appear to have no idea about life in these areas.  It is not an easy one.

People get a lot of pleasure from socialising with friends and family, who typically live close by. The longer the restrictions last, the greater the incentive to ignore them.

Imagine we had epidemiologists and health bureaucrats who understood that behaviour must change if a virus is to be contained.

Imagine we had politicians who were not in thrall to pseudo-science. At Christmas, is this too much to imagine?

As published in City AM Wednesday 24th December 2020
Image: Lockdown in Glasgow by Jxseph14 via Wikimedia  CC BY-SA 4.0
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Want people to get the Covid vaccine? Pay them

Want people to get the Covid vaccine? Pay them

The vaccines seem to be coming thick and fast.

The task now is to ensure that enough people get them to keep the virus under control.

The first issue is one of logistics. The track record of the UK’s health bureaucracy during the crisis has not been good. But the NHS does have experience of administering millions of flu jabs every year, and the process seems to work well.

The real challenge is how to persuade enough people to come forward and be vaccinated.

There is clearly a section of the population, revealed on social media, which will never agree to it. Some believe that the vaccine is a sinister plot by a tight-knit cabal to control the world.

True believers in such conspiracy theories are probably relatively small in number. The problem will be if they succeed in undermining the science behind the strategy of vaccination and manage to convince others.

Here, members of SAGE getting on TV to urge vaccination are a liability. They are almost doing the anti-vaxxers work for them.

The credibility of these scientists is being shot to pieces. The 1960s avant-garde artist Andy Warhol is currently enjoying a revival. He once memorably pronounced “in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes”.

The huge numbers of hitherto totally obscure academics on SAGE and its various sub-committees are living proof of the accuracy of Warhol’s prediction.  They fall over themselves to appear in the media with ever more gloom-laden predictions, most of which are rapidly exposed as being wrong.

This is a serious problem for the government.

Local GPs do seem to still have a high level of credibility and trust with the public. These doctors should be the ones promoting the message of vaccination. Government scientists and SAGE members, who have become figures of controversy, should simply keep quiet.

Even so, there may be many individuals who carry out a simple cost-benefit analysis for themselves. Virtually no one under 40 in reasonable health, for example, has died of Covid-19.  If the vaccine has unpleasant side effects, they may decide not to have it.

Incentives need to be put in place. There are externalities involved: if I refuse to have a vaccination, I can infect others. That means vaccination cannot simply be left to individual self-interest.

Some negative incentives seem obvious. For example, anyone who refuses the vaccine could be excluded from treatment if he or she caught the disease. Fines or even prison could be applied in vaccine refusers who are shown to have spread Covid.

But such measures would create the wrong sort of climate.

The best incentives in the current circumstances are positive ones. The idea being floated of a “vaccine passport” that would enable immunised people to experience more freedom in their day-to-day lives might work, though it would immediately create a market in forgeries.

But there is a much simpler way: people should be paid when they get vaccinated.

This would not have to be a vast amount from the government’s perspective. Even £25 per jab would amount to a drop in the ocean in the overall context of what has been spent on Covid. A cash incentive would particularly motivate poorer areas where health in general is a real problem.

Thus we solve the vaccine conundrum not with more doom-mongering scientists on TV, but by delegating the task of persuasion to a local level via GPs, and backing it up with real cash incentives. That is how we will beat Covid-19.

As published in City AM Wednesday 25th November 2020
Image: Vaccine by Pixabay
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And this week’s winner for the Stupid Scientist award is…

And this week’s winner for the Stupid Scientist award is…

Scepticism about the advice given by government scientists about Covid-19 is rising sharply.

In areas like Bolton infections are high. Interviews with the locals reveal that so, too, is disbelief in the veracity of the statements made by members of SAGE, the government science advisory group.

The scientists, rational beings themselves, may ascribe this to the inability of the general population to process information.

Yet it is their own pronouncements which have fostered scepticism. Scepticism in turn brings reluctance to follow advice, even when it is good.

Which brings us to the winner of this week’s Stupid Scientist award. It is a close-run thing, but step forward Nicola Steedman, Scotland’s deputy chief medical officer.

Students at universities in the Glasgow region are effectively being held under house arrest in their halls of residence. According to this particular Nicola, it is for their own good.  The students are apparently at serious risk of dying from coronavirus.

If we turn to the data to see how many people under 30 have died from Covid in Scotland since the pandemic began, the number is in fact zero.

Given this, why should any credence be given to anything which Ms Steedman now says?  There have been zero deaths amongst student-age groups, yet she appears to believe that they are at serious risk of death.

Runners up for the award are the well-known duo of Chris Whitty, chief UK medical officer, and Patrick Vallance, chief scientist. They pronounced there could be 50,000 cases of Covid a day by mid-October. If cases doubled every week, they would reach this level.

This projection has attracted widespread criticism. New cases have indeed risen in countries like France, Italy and even Germany, but at a rate which is much slower than doubling every week.

The real issue is the dog that did not bark. Not so much what they actually say, but what they do not say.

In France and Spain, for example, during September the number of new daily cases exceeded the previous peak levels reached in April. In France, the daily total reached 16,000 last Friday, double the highest level of April.

Surely the cemeteries and crematoria should be full to bursting?

But they are not.

In France, new cases have exceeded the April maximum since the beginning of September.  At the end of the month, deaths are only one tenth of their April peak level.

In Spain, deaths reached a quarter of the April peak for a couple of days and are now falling sharply.

In Italy, daily deaths remain in very low single figures.

In the UK, too, deaths have risen but are very low compared to the total number of new cases.

The whole thrust of the messaging from pro-lockdown public sector scientists and bureaucrats is negative. Some may think this is because of the incentives they face. The bigger the threat the virus apparently presents, the more their importance and influence grows.

In my view, this is unduly cynical. But it is a cynicism which seems to be prevailing amongst the people of Bolton and other afflicted areas.

As published in City AM Wednesday 30th September 2020
Image:  Chris Witty and Patrick Vallance by Number 10 via Flickr  CC BY-NC 2.0
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Artificial intelligence will dominate every aspect of our lives, but it won’t replace us

Artificial intelligence will dominate every aspect of our lives, but it won’t replace us

Guess which of the 964 jobs listed in the widely used Occupational Information Network online database is the least susceptible to replacement by artificial intelligence (AI).

The unsurprising answer is that of “massage therapist”.

This is one of the findings of a paper in the latest issue of the American Economic Review by Erik Brynjolfsson and colleagues at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

But, while this answer might seem obvious, the study itself is a serious and innovative attempt to analyse the potential impact of AI on occupations across the economy.

A key point is that AI technology itself is going through a period of revolutionary progress.

The success of Google’s Deep Mind team in defeating the world champion at the immensely complex game of Go received wide publicity.

Unlike the algorithms which vanquished chess some years previously, the latest AlphaGo programme – improved since its annihilation of the Go champion less than two years ago – does not simply rely on pure computing power to outperform humans. The algorithm starts by knowing absolutely nothing about the game. It becomes stronger by playing against itself and learning as it goes along.

In short, it teaches itself, remembering both its mistakes and its successes. This type of algorithm is very new, and is known as deep learning. The programmes automatically improve their performance at a task through experience.

Brynjolfsson and colleagues regard this as so significant that they describe deep learning as a “general purpose technology” (GPT).

GPTs are technologies which become pervasive throughout the economy, improve over time, and generate further innovations which are complementary.

Historically, they are few and far between. Steam and electricity are examples. If they disappeared tomorrow, we would rapidly be driven back to the living standard which existed several centuries ago.

Deep learning will take years – or even several decades – before anything like its full effects are realised. But we will then look back and find that it is just as hard to imagine a world without deep learning as it is a world without electricity.

What will that look like? The authors analyse 2,069 work activities and 18,156 tasks in the 964 occupations. From this, they build “suitability for machine learning” (SML) measures for labour inputs in the US economy. They find that most occupations in most industries have at least some tasks that are SML. Pretty obvious. But few, if any, occupations have all tasks that are SML.

This latter point certainly is surprising – and from it the MIT team derives a positive message: very few jobs can be fully automated using this new technology.

A fundamental shift is needed in the debate about the effects of AI on work. Instead of the common concerns about the full automation of many jobs and pervasive occupational replacement, we should be thinking about the redesign of jobs and reengineering of business processes.

Economics is often described as the dismal science. But Brynjolfsson’s paper certainly provides very positive food for thought.

As published in City AM Wednesday 6th June 2018

Image: Robots by By Kai Schreiber is licensed under CC2.0
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Embarrassing academic reversals show expert opinions are often built on sand

Embarrassing academic reversals show expert opinions are often built on sand

Last week we saw yet another major reversal of opinion by experts. For years we have all been lectured severely on the need to finish every single course of prescription drugs.

But the latest wisdom is that this is not necessary.

The announcement that petrol and diesel cars will be banned by 2040 only serves to remind the millions of diesel car owners that they were told only a few years ago that diesel was a Good Thing.

These stories have been very prominent in the media. But they are by no means isolated examples. Such reversals of opinion are all too common in the softer social and medical sciences. The “evidence base”, a phrase beloved of metropolitan liberal experts, is often built on sand.

This is neatly illustrated by psychology. Science is probably the most prestigious scientific journal in the world. At the end of 2015, a group of no fewer than 270 authors published a paper in it. They were all part of the teams which had published 100 scientific articles in top psychology journals.

In only 16 out of the 100 cases could the experimental results be replicated sufficiently closely to be confident that the original finding was valid.

The papers had been published in top psychology journals, and the original authors were involved in the replication experiment. So the replication rate should have been high.

Instead, it was so low that the lead author of the Science piece points out that they effectively knew nothing. The original finding could be correct, the different result in the attempted replication could be. Or neither of these could be true.

There is no suggestion at all that any sort of fraud or misrepresentation was involved when the original results were submitted for publication. But economic theory helps us understand how this absurd situation came about.

The great insight of economics is that people react to incentives.

Academics now face immense pressure to publish research papers. If they do not, they get more burdensome teaching loads, miss out on promotions, and might even get sacked. Their incentive is to publish.

Academic journals will only very rarely accept a paper which contains negative results. The whole culture is to find positive ones. So experiments will be re-designed, run with different samples, until that sought-after positive finding is obtained.

More and more academics are now desperate to publish more and more research papers. To meet this increase in demand, there has been a massive increase in the supply of journals willing to publish. Many of these are highly dubious, prepared to accept papers on payment of a fee by the authors.

For all except a small elite of individuals and institutions, academic life has become increasingly proletarianised. In the old Soviet Union, workers could get medals for exceeding the quota of, say, boot production. It did not matter if all the boots were left footed.

Many universities are now similar, with useless articles being churned out to meet the demands of bureaucrats. Time for a big purge, both of academics and their institutions.

As published in City AM Wednesday 2nd August 2017

Image: Sand Castle by Gregor is licensed under CC by 2.0
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