For the past few weeks, a paper in Nature has provoked vapors among those who want more scientific disruption. Bill Broad summarized it in the New York Times.
The paper defined “disruption” by a pattern of citations in the scientific literature. Horrifyingly to some, those disruptions have decreased since 1950.
There are layers of assumptions. First, that a pattern of citations in scientific papers is a measure of disruption. Next, that disruption is good and necessary for science. The overall goal of this disruption is not made explicit. To better our lives? In what way? For an abstract ideal of progress? For personal glory?
Four examples are given in Johnson’s thread: the DNA helix, relativity, quantum mechanics, and space flight. None were developed in a single paper. All emerged after long histories of related work. The first two are associated with single historic papers. The last two aren’t.
Moderna has announced an increase in the price of their m-RNA vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 from the $26 per dose that the government has been paying to something like $130 per dose. This will affect insured people only indirectly, increasing their insurance companies’ costs, but the uninsured will pay the whole price.
Much of the research the m-RNA vaccines are based on was done under government grants or contracts, in government laboratories. The government guaranteed an initial market. So why is Moderna setting the price?
If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ve probably seen parts of this story. A longer version was posted for a while, but then Stanford University cleaned out all websites that used Drupal, so it’s gone now.
This week I refound a video that I like because it explains a lot about the Silmet rare-earths refining plant at Sillamäe, Estonia.
I became involved with Sillamäe in 1998, when NATO wanted Los Alamos to hold more of its Advanced Research Workshops with the recently independent states that came out of the Soviet Union. We held an ARW in Tallinn in October 1998 on how to remediate the kilometer-long tailings pond from the plant.
The ozone layer in our atmosphere absorbs ultraviolet light from the sun that could damage life on earth. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, it became evident that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), widely used in refrigerators and air conditioners, were destroying ozone in the upper atmosphere.
The Montreal Protocol banning CFCs was adopted unanimously in 1987 by the nations of the world. Production of CFCs was banned, and they began to disappear from the atmosphere. The ozone holes that had been observed over the earth’s poles narrowed. But in 2012, CFCs began to increase again.
Long story short, they were being produced in China. Continuing atmospheric monitoring, part of the Protocol, showed that. The measurements and likely source were publicized, and, without fanfare, the levels of CFCs started going down again.
This is the kind of thing we are going to have to do for carbon dioxide. It will be much more difficult, because there are so many sources of carbon dioxide and wealthy beneficiaries who are fighting to keep the status quo. But we have the CFC success to look to.
It’s harder to analyze events than to paste labels on them. Events come thick and fast, and pundits have to say something. It’s mostly pundits I’m talking about, but not entirely. History may not repeat, but it does rhyme, they say, and then they reach for one of these tropes. When the tropes are repeated again and again, they can influence policymakers. They flatten everyone’s thinking.
Here are five that I find particularly irritating.
Red Lines. Although they frequently appear in op-eds, nobody has identified these precious markers. Party A has a red line that Party B must not cross, or package of responses C will ensue. War doesn’t work this way. Most diplomacy doesn’t work this way. Each side has a number of options to choose from that depend on the situation in which a decision is made: timing, balance of interests, balance of power. The New York Times has an excellent explainer on red lines, although they couldn’t resist writing the headline as if the trope was worth considering.