Survival science – just run like hell

You know the story of the two guys who are being chased by a lion. One says to the other “We are going to die. We can never outrun this lion.” His friend replies: “I don’t have to outrun the lion. I only have to outrun you.”

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A recent paper* turns the modern spotlight of statistics onto that pressing issue of how best to survive a big cat attack. The authors analysed data from 185 puma attacks on humans in North America over more than 100 years. The response was severity of injury, ranging from no injury to death. The predictors were age, group composition and behaviour. I am not sure about age but I am guessing that you shouldn’t go walking by yourself in puma country for a start. The modern data crunch used to reveal the elusive truth was multinomial regression.

It turns out that age had no effect on injury severity. Once the puma gets his claws into you, you are pretty well fu…d, well in serious trouble however old you are.

There is confirmation that if you are in a group you have less chance of injury – just as the guys in the humourous story reasoned from first principles. But the severity of injury is not reduced by larger group numbers. Your mates are obviously too busy climbing up the nearest tree to distract the puma from snacking on your wobbly bits.

It also appears that your behaviour influences the chance of serious injury. Specifically, it is found that if you stand still and wait for the puma to attack you then you have a higher chance of injury (74%) then if you run like hell (50%). And it doesn’t really matter how fast you run – presumably because the puma can run faster than you or Usain Bolt.

So, if you see a puma attacking then you should run. Who would have thought! ** This is science and modern number crunching at its best – pushing the frontiers of human knowledge and saving human lives.

*Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of the Interactions of People and Animals, 22, 77-87.

** OK, I am being a bit hard on the authors. Actually, conventional wisdom and some wildlife agencies advise against running. The California Department of Fish and Game says on its Web site, in part: “Do not run from a lion. Running may stimulate a mountain lion’s instinct to chase. Instead, stand and face the animal.”


Obama on Science

The report of the National Innovation Review were released in September last year while Barack Obama was still running for President. We are yet to hear whether, if anything, the Government is going to move on those recommendations. Today, however, the US President made a speech outlining what he was going to do in the area of science and technology. It is far-reaching, bold (lifting spending on R&D to 3% of GDP) and adopts many of the things our National Innovation Review recommended.

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The speech is here and it is perhaps the best Obama has made since taking office.

The pursuit of discovery half a century ago fueled our prosperity and our success as a nation in the half century that followed. The commitment I am making today will fuel our success for another 50 years. That’s how we will ensure that our children and their children will look back on this generation’s work as that which defined the progress and delivered the prosperity of the 21st century.

Underpinning the speech are some core ideas for the economics of innovation including the recognition of uncertainty as well as the idea that general purpose technologies spur innovative applications.

As Vannevar Bush, who served as scientific advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt, famously said: “Basic scientific research is scientific capital.”

The fact is an investigation into a particular physical, chemical, or biological process might not pay off for a year, or a decade, or at all. And when it does, the rewards are often broadly shared, enjoyed by those who bore its costs but also by those who did not.

And that’s why the private sector generally under-invests in basic science, and why the public sector must invest in this kind of research — because while the risks may be large, so are the rewards for our economy and our society.

No one can predict what new applications will be born of basic research: new treatments in our hospitals, or new sources of efficient energy; new building materials; new kinds of crops more resistant to heat and to drought.

It was basic research in the photoelectric field — in the photoelectric effect that would one day lead to solar panels. It was basic research in physics that would eventually produce the CAT scan. The calculations of today’s GPS satellites are based on the equations that Einstein put to paper more than a century ago.

And it is not all about basic, government-funded science:

But the renewed commitment of our nation will not be driven by government investment alone. It’s a commitment that extends from the laboratory to the marketplace. And that’s why my budget makes the research and experimentation tax credit permanent. This is a tax credit that returns two dollars to the economy for every dollar we spend, by helping companies afford the often high costs of developing new ideas, new technologies, and new products. Yet at times we’ve allowed it to lapse or only renewed it year to year. I’ve heard this time and again from entrepreneurs across this country: By making this credit permanent we make it possible for businesses to plan the kinds of projects that create jobs and economic growth.

But it is about energy and the environment.

But energy is our great project, this generation’s great project. And that’s why I’ve set a goal for our nation that we will reduce our carbon pollution by more than 80 percent by 2050. And that is why and that is why I’m pursuing, in concert with Congress, the policies that will help meet us — help us meet this goal.

My recovery plan provides the incentives to double our nation’s capacity to generate renewable energy over the next few years — extending the production tax credit, providing loan guarantees and offering grants to spur investment. Just take one example: Federally funded research and development has dropped the cost of solar panels by tenfold over the last three decades. Our renewed efforts will ensure that solar and other clean energy technologies will be competitive.

And it will all be done through a new agency, APRA-E.

But like our innovation review, it isn’t just about science. It is also about data.

The Recovery Act will support the long overdue step of computerizing America’s medical records, to reduce the duplication, waste and errors that cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives.

But it’s important to note, these records also hold the potential of offering patients the chance to be more active participants in the prevention and treatment of their diseases. We must maintain patient control over these records and respect their privacy. At the same time, we have the opportunity to offer billions and billions of anonymous data points to medical researchers who may find in this information evidence that can help us better understand disease. …

In biomedicine, just to give you an example of what PCAST can do, we can harness the historic convergence between life sciences and physical sciences that’s underway today; undertaking public projects — in the spirit of the Human Genome Project — to create data and capabilities that fuel discoveries in tens of thousands of laboratories; and identifying and overcoming scientific and bureaucratic barriers to rapidly translating scientific breakthroughs into diagnostics and therapeutics that serve patients.

In environmental science, it will require strengthening our weather forecasting, our Earth observation from space, the management of our nation’s land, water and forests, and the stewardship of our coastal zones and ocean fisheries.

And then, there is the usual commitment to science and mathematics in education that I am sure others can go into.

It is rare these days to see governments focused on the very long-time but that makes it all the more sweeter when they do.


Video Podcast at

I’ve created a website for people to discuss gene patenting. It’s at On that site, you will find video podcasts from last week’s public discussion on gene patenting. If you have comments or thoughts to share on this very important issue, please add them to “comments” section at

Commercial science

I have already commented on the interesting posts by Stephen Quake on the interface between academic science and commerce. In his latest column, Quake comments on how universities manage potential conflicts of interest:

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Faculty members with financial interests in their research must disclose such interests through a “conflict of interest” (COI) process. The federal government has up to this point taken a fairly sensible position about COI in the grants they fund: they require conflicts to be disclosed by the faculty and “managed” by the university – but don’t prescribe a particular method.

Unfortunately, this has encouraged universities to create a bureaucracy to “manage” COI – often by meddling into faculty research in ways that create more heat than light. These COI bureaucracies often overlook the solution that has been arrived at by the scientific community: disclosure and peer review of all publications. Peer review is the bedrock value of the scientific community and although it certainly is not perfect, it is, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, “the worst system, except for all the others that have been tried.”

When this bureaucracy asked me for a plan to manage conflicts in my own research, I wrote one that described all of the steps involved in peer review – and the COI committee sent it back as “too much.” In their view the process that scientific publications go through was more rigorous than necessary.

He goes on:

Interestingly, it is not unusual for basic scientists with no commercial relationships to be dependent on grants for their salaries and therefore have a significant personal financial interest in preserving their grants. Although COI experts have assured me that that this is not a conflict that needs to be managed, I must confess that I have some difficulty with the distinction they are trying to draw. Who is under greater temptation to bias the results of their research: the financially comfortable academic entrepreneur, or the ivory tower scientist who may not be able to pay his mortgage if his grant is not renewed? Perhaps all financial conflicts should be treated even-handedly.

Then there is a discussion about actual university commercialisation:

Licensing is often a protracted process, and licensing officers so paralyzed with fear about making a mistake and not maximizing licensing revenues that they discourage all but the most persistent licensees. Because universities are non-profit institutions, the true measurement of technology transfer success should not be the total amount of licensing revenue, but rather the successes in helping faculty members patent inventions, in forming new ventures that create jobs, and in facilitating the commercialization of technologies that in many cases will help improve our society.

The best way for universities to achieve this would be to make the same decision the federal government did, and relinquish their control over licensing. Since in most cases faculty know the context of their invention and how it can be best commercialized, they should drive the licensing process, and the OTL should play a supporting role. The university deserves to receive some compensation, but this should be fixed by a simple formula and limited — bearing in mind that the vast majority of research funding that leads to inventions has been obtained by the faculty through grants, and that the university has already taxed a fair bit of that to support its facilities.

I thought of all this stuff about University meddling as I listened to a talk the other week from a noted Australian scientist who described how the University of Melbourne used to make it nearly impossible for academic entrepreneurs to commercialise potential innovators and then for a brief period assigned ownership to them and kept their hands off. That apparently led to a great deal of commercialisation before the University reverted back to the high transaction cost model.

[Update: Actually, there is some ambiguity as to whether the policy of assigning ownership to academics really worked at the University of Melbourne; which is why they abandoned it. Other reports suggest that the current policies are working better. Sounds like an interesting area for further study.]


Pure AND applied research

A great article in the New York Times today by Stephen Quake on the artificial divide between pure and applied research.

These transcendent figures in the history of science flourished by moving back and forth between pure and applied problems. In today’s more specialized world, there are numerous artificial divisions between pure and applied work: different departments, different professional societies, and different journals. The stereotyped view is that the applied scientists control the lion’s share of funding, while the basic scientists control the most prestigious journals and prizes. The reality is more complicated and lies somewhere in between.

Whenever I hear that academics need freedom so they can devote themselves to pure research I cringe. And it is precisely for this reason. My belief is that for the most part pure research can translate into the applied and vice versa. Even in my own field of economics, there are still many academics who believe that to pay attention or be concerned about real world problems diverts them from some noble goal of pure thought. The evidence from our greatest scientists provides a clear counterpoint.

Something I didn’t know

From Michael Nielsen:

How many of Einstein’s 300 plus papers were peer reviewed? According to the physicist and historian of science Daniel Kennefick, it may well be that only a single paper of Einstein’s was ever subject to peer review. That was a paper about gravitational waves, jointly authored with Nathan Rosen, and submitted to the journal Physical Review in 1936. The Physical Review had at that time recently introduced a peer review system. It wasn’t always used, but when the editor wanted a second opinion on a submission, he would send it out for review. The Einstein-Rosen paper was sent out for review, and came back with a (correct, as it turned out) negative report. Einstein’s indignant reply to the editor is amusing to modern scientific sensibilities, and suggests someone quite unfamiliar with peer review:

Dear Sir,

We (Mr. Rosen and I) had sent you our manuscript for publication and had not authorized you to show it to specialists before it is printed. I see no reason to address the in any case erroneous comments of your anonymous expert. On the basis of this incident I prefer to publish the paper elsewhere.


P.S. Mr. Rosen, who has left for the Soviet Union, has authorized me to represent him in this matter.

Wow. And there is more in the post, especially regarding how comparatively recent peer-review became a formal practice.