⚡ Pursuing the Endless Frontier
How science policy shapes the future of innovation
Reboot writes mostly about software and computing, but the world of science is an adjacent and equally relevant field from which to draw parallels and understanding about issues in tech ethics, policy, and responsibility.
Today’s interview is with scientist and longtime Reboot editorial lead Ben Wolfson. Ben earned his PhD in Molecular Medicine from the University of Maryland Baltimore, followed by a postdoc in cancer immunotherapy at the National Cancer Institute. Currently, he serves as the Assistant Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Science Policy and Governance and as a Science and Technology Policy Fellow in Washington D.C.
🔬 pursuing the endless frontier
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What have you been doing for the past few years, and what are you up to now?
I got my PhD in cancer biology in 2018; since then, I’ve been a postdoctoral researcher in cancer immunology, and now I'm about to start as a Science and Technology Policy Fellow. I’ll hopefully be working on policy governing what research gets funded and how science works in the federal government.
Why did you decide to make the switch from wet lab research to a policy role?
For me, policy has been an ongoing, slow-burning interest. There’s a lot of people who can do good science and who really want to do good science. But to enable good science and technology, you need good politicians and good policies that promote innovative research and guidelines for doing so in equitable and ethical ways.
Policy is a field that needs scientific expertise. The purpose of the fellowship I’m doing is to bring scientists into government, specifically into roles where they can offer their scientific expertise, while simultaneously getting trained on how to change and contribute to policy.
Right now, scientists have to deal with the fight for funding and the fight to do research that is unimpeded by unnecessary policies. Cancer research is privileged in that everybody understands the need for it, so there's always lots of funding, but this isn’t always the case. I’m thinking specifically of fetal tissue research bans, which are often pushed by anti-abortion activists. Some people might think that using fetal tissue is unethical, but it’s a critical resource for a lot of important work in medicine.
What do you think about the nature of research when it’s privately versus publicly funded?
The entire structure of the government’s scientific research funding right now is built on a document that was written in 1945 by Vannevar Bush called the “Science, the Endless Frontier.” It argued that as World War II ended, the U.S. government should continue to fund science, and especially basic research, at wartime levels in order to promote growth.
Basic research is super important for the development of scientific applications, but it isn't as well-funded by private industry because companies can't necessarily get something profitable out of it immediately. That's the dogma for why federal research is important.
However, federal research funding has been decreasing or stagnating for the past several decades — which means that in many important fields, funding has been taken over by the private sector. We're starting to see incredibly wealthy companies devote billions of dollars into research at unprecedented levels.
Alphabet has the biotech company Calico Labs, but it seems like they’re struggling a bit — they haven’t done a whole lot publicly, at least. Other lab science that tech has funded seems to be focused on their founders’ priorities, which often happen to be life extension. Then, there’s Apple’s investment in personal health tech via Apple Watch, but it’s all based on what might be profitable, and that’s not necessarily the reason you do something in federally funded science.
Is science policy just a question of funding then? Or are there other limits beyond finances?
I’m interested in more than just funding. That’s another rapidly growing field: What promotes innovation? How can we speed it up? These questions were jumpstarted by Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison a few years back.
One of the problems right now is that we can throw a lot of money at research, but we’re not so good at connecting work in disparate fields together to figure out what’s valuable. For example, I think we're in the very early stages of seeing what machine learning can contribute to biological science. Google just announced a month or two ago that they’d cracked protein folding, which is a huge deal if true. We’ll probably start seeing more stuff like that.
Are you worried about the potential for research itself to be privatized? For example, would Google ever refuse to release their protein folding work?
It's certainly a scary possibility. So far, the Supreme Court has made it nearly impossible to patent genes and some similar things. But a company can still restrict information or choose not to publish findings that they think they will be able to make profit from eventually.
That being said, there’s a very strong culture in science about the freedom of information and sharing results. So if that happened, there would be blowback. At the same time, I wouldn't be surprised if in the case of blowback, the scientists speaking out were fired, and then the company continued to keep its research secret.
The culture of Western science has always been one of “freedom,” but in reality, it’s sometimes been more of what we say than what we do.
I read a great book called Freedom’s Laboratory about how the culture of scientific freedom in the West was used as propaganda in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Even though it started as propaganda, that culture has become self-fulfilling; most scientists very dearly believe in open science. Even right now, we’re seeing pushback against publishers who charge exorbitant fees for manuscripts. That’s a good direction, but that’s only for work that’s been published — and companies may not have an interest in publishing their work.
You mentioned that the push to fund basic research has roots in World War II and the Cold War. What do you think about that framing? Do you think there’s a way to foster innovation without the explicit goal of winning a war?
Military framing is a very easy way to sell research or to sell funding. We're seeing that right now with the USICA, which is a large research funding bill that is being framed specifically as a way to combat China, in a pseudo-Cold-War mentality.
I have complicated feelings about it. The metaphor of war is not necessarily the most productive or the most ethical, and of course, it would be nice to secure funding by saying, “This will be good for everybody.” But if wartime framing helps it get done — like if we have to go to war against global warming — then maybe the ends will justify the means. Nixon declared a war on cancer, for example, which increased cancer funding substantially. We haven’t cured cancer, but we’ve definitely made progress since then.
It seems like the only way politicians know how to describe research goals is war on or moonshot for — we had a Cancer Moonshot under Obama — but the strategy sells.
Any parting thoughts for readers considering science or tech policy careers?
I got into science because I love science fiction and thinking about the future. That’s the same reason I’m getting into science policy: I see what’s possible, and I want to enable it. That can just as easily be done on both sides of a lab bench.
The same is true for other fields — if you have a vision about what science and technology should look like, you can push for that from no matter where you are.
🚀 DARPA is the federal agency behind breakthrough technologies from the laser to the internet. Read this insane deep dive into how and it worked so well.
📚 This New Yorker story describes how Overdrive’s consolidation chokes public library budgets.
✍️ All writing is collectively created: an amalgam of one person’s perspective with the innumerable bits of knowledge that influenced their thinking. In this essay, Sari Azout and Jad Esber explore how new business models might recognize the cooperative nature of creative work.
🔎 Satisfy your parasocial fantasies with this hilarious look at NYT tech reporter Mike Isaac’s Google search history.
💝 closing note
Someone in the Reboot community recently asked for written pieces of “tech satire”:
Pat: I read “How to Become an Intellectual in Silicon Valley” a few months ago.
Lucas: What Tech Calls Thinking, kinda!
Jasmine: Uncanny Valley is near-satirical, except for the part where it’s real.
(But seriously, send us some satire — we could use a laugh.)
Jasmine & Reboot team