The Mathematically Inclined Shall Inherit the Earth

January 8, 2014

“… at this point, it’s in the hands of people who are mathematically inclined.”

—Stephen Hsu

The January 6th New Yorker contains an article on B.G.I., a Chinese company seeking to do major work in the field of genetics. According to them, the massive amounts of genetic data they (and others) are collecting and interpolating will help “explain the origins and evolution of humanity, improve our average life span by five years, increase global food production by ten percent, decode half of all genetic diseases, understand the origins of autism, and cut birth defects by fifty percent.”

They’re also hoping to find some genetic factors that contribute to intelligence. “Probably by tweaking a certain number of variants in a positive way, you could rev up human intelligence quite a bit,” says Hsu, one of the principals on the project. Giving human intelligence a genetic nudge is one of those projects that I instinctively don’t believe will work… until I think about it. My resistance to the idea has to do with the inherent complexity of genetic expression—the path from gene to trait is a chaotic and messy one. But that’s precisely what statistics is for. “Everyone is coming around to believe that things are controlled by many genes, and there has been a tendency in the field to just throw up your hands and say, Well, this is going to lead nowhere, or this is all a boondoggle. But I actually think that, at this point, it’s in the hands of people who are mathematically inclined.”

I think Hsu is right about a lot of things, and I liked the article. What gets my ire up, though, is that the U.S. isn’t doing nearly enough to invest in its future, to maintain its position as the center of scientific inquiry. What we need seems pretty obvious: investment in education starting with pre-K, and investment in science from basic research on up.

I don’t think we’re doing particularly well, nationwide, in education, and the latest international comparisons bear that out. Meanwhile, I’m watching scientist friends apply for grants only to be told that their application is excellent, but their timing is bad. (Summarized beautifully here). The pool of money for research is so shrinkingly small that it’s starting to unnerve me.

I’ve been saying for a long time that we need to invest in the capacity of teachers and schools, and make the choice to take the long road toward maintaining what’s good in our education system, and working on what isn’t. But scientific research is something the US is already the best at. At this rate, we won’t be for much longer. To quote the article again,

… at a time when the N.I.H. is cutting back on funding scientific research, China is not. Recently, the Chinese government published an ambitious fifty-year plan to advance its technical and scientific position in the world. Few scientists would claim that they can predict that far into the future. But the fact that China would even try demonstrates how serious the country is about its technological place in the world.

You don’t stay at the top by taking it for granted. You have to care about investments in the next generations. China’s making a play. So is Estonia. What are we going to do?

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