Fund everybody

I wouldn’t say this article by Stuart Buck got me fired up. But it’s riled me enough to be writing this. To recap: the post is about the proliferation of new approaches to the funding—and thus, the attempted acceleration—of science. These new approaches mostly aim to fund people not projects but they come with what Buck has termed the Karikó problem:

“That’s why we should worry about the invisible Karikós: the people with good ideas that weren’t popular at the time who dropped out of academia. It’s unlikely that she was the only person in the world who had an interesting idea in 1985 that could have turned into a groundbreaking discovery over the next few decades.

So here’s the Karikó problem in a nutshell: Anyone can identify Karikó in retrospect, given her persistence and her eventual discoveries. But what do we do right now to find the 2022 versions of Karikó who simply don’t (yet) look like the “visionaries” or “geniuses” who would be eligible for “person not project” funding?”

I’m not frustrated by Buck’s writing or Buck the person, nor am I against attempts to rearchitect scientific funding practices—scientists should be able to do science and not be forced to engage in Kafka-esque quests for subsistence. What frustrates me is the limited scope of the pivot to funding people not projects.

A little more detail: funding people not projects is akin to the 1/n approach to investing:

“The 1/N investment strategy, i.e. the strategy to split one’s wealth uniformly between the available investment possibilities, recently received plenty of attention in the literature. In this paper, we demonstrate that the uniform investment strategy is rational in situations where an agent is faced with a sufficiently high degree of model uncertainty in the form of ambiguous loss distributions.”

Assuming a Gaussian/normal distribution of outcomes, the 1/n approach mitigates risk and offers mild upside. Assuming a non-Gaussian/power law distribution of outcomes, the 1/n approach mitigates risk and offers massive upside.

For example, in the world of startups and venture capital securing an investment in one unicorn can compensate for modest/non-returns from investments in a hundred other equally promising companies. Similarly, science—occurring as a part of, you know, reality—tends to display a non-Gaussian/power law distribution. There are Karikós and they initiate punctuations in the equilibrium that often occur in small clusters of spacetime.

This is where my frustration comes from: if we accept that we can’t accurately predict instances of Karikós navigating the world and running point for its (r)evolution, why do we accept the idea that we can predict the total societal contributions of any individual in any domain?

Karikó was highly educated and incredibly competent. She wasn’t some random off the street.

“She earned her PhD in biochemistry at the University of Szeged in Hungary, currently ranked by US News as the 712th best university globally.

She emigrated to the U.S. in 1985 with her husband and then-young daughter to take a postdoc position at Temple University in Philadelphia, and eventually got a job as a non-tenure-track research assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. But she was demoted in 1995 because, no matter how many times she applied for NIH funding for her mRNA research, she never got a grant for it.”

Yet that wasn’t enough to predict what she would go on to do? That we can’t predict the total societal contributions of a PhD is a shame (and an indication that our current academic apparatus is something close to a grift?). What about someone with a Masters? Someone with a degree? Someone just out of school? Children in school? No; no; no; no. We know that, broadly, they’ll make some contribution; scientific, artistic, or just intangible like being a good friend or loving parent and facilitating the contributions of others. We just don’t know it’s type or its extent.

So how about this: instead of funding promising people to do science, we just fund everybody to do whatever the fuck they want. Yes, I’m talking about basic income. 

Basic income can manifest as straight up cash subsidies that are sufficient to cover what could be classed as the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy—food, shelter, security (though I do worry that this would somehow be gamed by pesky capitalist sociopaths). Or it could be the free distribution of housing, healthcare, childcare and education.

I’m not saying that everyone should get a free mansion, access to cryogenics, an exotically foreign au pair and one-to-one tutoring by an insufferable and severe Oxford-educated toff. Instead, I’m advocating for a minimum baseline in housing, healthcare, childcare and education that is somewhat higher than what is currently available. Such a basic income would allow people to stop worrying about subsistence and pursue whatever it is they are most suited to do for as long or as little as they want.

The current system, in contrast, looks like this: most people spend most of their time worrying about subsistence, a significant chunk of their remaining time working out how to cope and actually coping with the consequences of the perpetual struggle for subsistence, and only a small sliver (if they’re lucky!) of their time discovering and doing what they enjoy or are most uniquely positioned to do.

Basic income helps homeless people find homes and enter “normality”; it helps kids in poverty-stricken families get healthier and not have a shitty quality of life; heck, I (not under-privileged) used a de facto basic income (the UK’s furlough scheme) to transition from working in a factory to working for a startup—

*Insert wailing about the affordability of basic income and/or the hugely negative moral consequences of making life liveable by default (rather than by exception) for the majority of people.

I know, I know. But since repeated indications that even basic basic income helps the under-privileged mitigate systemic biases aren’t enough to generate any political momentum, let’s focus on the ability of basic income to enhance Science, and Society in general. And let’s do it using rhetorical questions*.

Does the world need more Karikós in every domain?

“Yes,” seems like a reasonable response.

But aren’t Karikós tricky to identify?

Again, “Yes,” is acceptable.

So why don’t we stop trying?

I’ll let you have, “WTF.”

Why don’t we just fund everybody?

*I didn’t have time to do it using slightly more rigorous tools, such as numbers; please feel free to do the analysis yourself.