Should we prioritize established solutions to contemporary problems? Or should we support riskier research on speculative problems that we may (or may not) face in the future?

How lucky are we that the original variant of COVID-19 wasn’t as transmissible as Omicron? Imagine Omicron’s infectiousness in March 2020 — without the vaccines, treatments, and preparation that we have today?

I had the same reflection as Paola after reading an incredible profile by Gina Kolata and Benjamin Mueller into the decades of lucky scientific discoveries and serendipitous partnerships that led to the mRNA vaccines just in time for the worst pandemic in over a century.

The incredible aggregation of lucky scientific discoveries in the timeline above remind me of Thomas Thwaites’ project to build a toaster from scratch.

While you can buy a perfectly workable toaster today for under $10, it would take thousands of dollars, months of work, and nearly 100 materials to build such a toaster from scratch. Innovation is iterative, building one discovery on top of another until you have something useful like a toaster, or a vaccine, to take for granted. Just another part of modern life: toasted bread, death averted.

When I was working at the Gates Foundation, there was much discussion of DALY’s — the Disability-Adjusted Life-Year metric — as an attempt to compare the cost and relative impact of the various initiatives we funded. How many unnecessary deaths could be prevented from investments in agriculture versus malaria bed nets versus deworming, toilets, handwashing, vaccines, and on and on? This kind of competitive, live-saving optimization is the basis of the Effective Altruist movement and GiveWell’s most effective charities. (Where you can, supposedly, direct $4,500 to save a life from malaria or $3,000 to save a life from vitamin A deficiency.)

Still, how does one compare the relatively proven interventions of vitamin A supplements and malaria bed nets with the serendipitous, iterative scientific discoveries that unfold over decades? Should we prioritize established solutions to contemporary problems? Or should we support riskier research on speculative problems that we may (or may not) face in the future? It’s a whole debate, and while there are increasing calls for foundations to spend down their endowments faster, GiveWell decided to delay 20% of their 2021 grantmaking because they believe the money could ultimately do more good in the future than the present. For over six years now they’ve been weighing the relative merits of reducing parasitic worms in children today versus preparing for “global catastrophic risks” in the future.

We search for meaning in life and in work. What’s so enthralling about the New York Times reporting on the decades of scientific discoveries that led to the mRNA vaccine is that it offers us the possibility that our hours of toil today could unexpectedly lead to transformative change decades into the future. What the article leaves out is that for every hundred scientists that contributed in some way to the development of the mRNA vaccines, there are tens of thousands of virologists whose research was fruitless. At least for now. Such is science. Fortunately, the human psyche doesn’t require the certainty of meaning to sustain motivation. Just the possibility.

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David Sasaki

Mostly ill-formed reflections to figure out what I think myself. Occasionally a fully formed essay with strong opinions, loosely held.