June 24, 2010

Solving the right problems

You need to fix it!Needless Megadeaths: A Suggestion for Science in the Public Interest - Eric Drexler points out that very important questions like "which diet improves overall health the most?" (on which not just the health of billion hinges, but also billions of dollars of advice, public policy and attention) that could be investigated scientifically actually aren't investigated efficiently or comprehensively. While one can defend nutritional epidemiology on the grounds that the problem is really hard and maybe a bit undefined, there are clearly many important issues that are enormously under-investigated despite being relatively simple to check (consider running the lifespan effects of *all* the basic micro-nutrients on fruit flies, for example - this has apparently not been done).

Drexler sketches a program that really ought to be promoted:

1. Obligate science funding agencies to establish institutional mechanisms that are responsible for registering (allegedly) open scientific questions, and from diverse, external sources.

2. Make it embarrassing for the responsible parties to ignore questions that obviously shouldn’t be ignored.

3. For each question worth attention, require that they state an explicit estimate of the importance and difficulty of answering it.

4. Obligate the agency to either fund research on the most important and answerable questions, or to explicitly state reasons for neglecting them.

Easier said that done, devils in the details, but it looks like a very sane thing to do. What sensible agency claiming to want to solve important problems wouldn't want to identify the most important ones and try to get them solved? Given that differences in importance appear to be power-law distributed or something similar (the most effective/important problem is often an order of magnitude bigger than the second) getting priorities right is really crucial.

A key task would be to make signalling effects work in favour of solving important problems rather than in favour of solving apparently important problems. There are also principal agent problems between the public and the research agencies and between the agencies and researchers: they can each have different views on what constitutes the most important problem and which is most rewarding to solve. Hence we need to develop better ways of making it very clear how and why people arrive at their own priority estimates and make sure these transparent estimates are made public.

Posted by Anders3 at June 24, 2010 08:51 PM