‘How systems work’ is already a theme of these blogs, in that the general properties of systems – typically seen (mathematically) as ‘graphs’ of objects that interact with each other – are assumed by definition to have general applicability. While our focus is normally on biology, it is assumed from a systems perspective that the rules that we learn in biology can hopefully similarly be applied to other systems, and vice versa. One such class of system is the domain of what Carlyle famously called the ‘dismal science’ of economics – on which everyone, however amateur, is a Monday morning quarterback (and at some level a participant). So one of the books I read in the holidays was Paul Krugman’s short and masterful analysis of the lead-up to and unfolding of the present economic downturn. Now Krugman is no slouch – the book is an update of his predictions in 1999, and he received the Nobel Prize in Economics for 2008 – and his writing style is simple, effective, jargon-free and understandable. Some of his main conclusions (as I take them) are equivalently simple:

  • Many lessons might be learnt from history (hindsight is or can be, of course, an exact science)
  • One of those from the 1930s is that banks need to be regulated so that their assets (deposits) do not exceed their liabilities, and that after the Depression of the 1930s such legislation was indeed widely enacted
  • If it smells like a bank and quacks like a bank and acts like a bank then, functionally, it is a bank; what went wrong in the period leading up to the present crisis was the emergence of  a ‘parallel’ or ‘shadow’ banking sector that was not subject to the same kind of appropriate regulation
  • In the future all such institutions will need to be regulated in a grown-up manner
  • Too much emphasis had been placed on so-called supply-side economics, and the main way out of the present downturn will be to stimulate demand. Note that in biotechnology increasing the flux through a metabolic system is also usually best done by increasing ‘demand’ (Hofmeyr & Cornish-Bowden, 2000)
  • Many of the elements that seemed to ‘amplify’ quite minor changes were effectively structural or topological in nature, and involved positive feedback loops that were insufficiently damped (much, as I have suggested, occurs in disease development – it would be worthwhile understanding these structures, and the concept of network motifs is one that I shall return to in a later blog)

In making a high-level analysis, there are necessarily some things that are glossed over (e.g. the infamous failure of the Long-Term Capital Management fund is noted but not its mechanism – which was the failure of their internal computer model to take account of the limitations of some of its axioms, such as the unexpected defaulting on specific international debts). Krugman concludes, in a more general context, “The true scarcity in Keynes’ world – and ours – was therefore not of resources, or even of virtue, but of understanding.”

To an amateur economist, and notwithstanding the Professor Krugman’s failure to conceal some personal prejudices, this book was overall a very helpful account for the non-specialist of why we are where we are, and what kinds of macroeconomic (and surprisingly Keynesian) remedies we may need to swallow.

Now it may seem slightly obvious that there is a rather profound difference between wishing something to happen (sometimes referred to as ‘policy’) and ensuring that it does happen (‘delivery’), but it was correctly recognised by the UK Government that rather too much emphasis had been placed on the former. Setting in place mechanisms for ensuring that one does in fact have the desired effect is the theme of the next book – Professor (now Sir) Michael Barber’s “Instruction to deliver”. This sets out, again with clarity, detail and precision, the means by which the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit that Barber headed from 2001 to 2005 managed to turn round a number of previously lacklustre public services in areas such as school education and transport. A number of key features were seen as contributing to the success of this astonishingly small operation (ca 40 persons), but a major one was the concentration on, and relentless pursuit of, a subset of priorities – don’t spread yourself too thin – coupled to a strong insistence on letting the data do the talking when success or otherwise was to be measured. Although ideas and data are coupled iteratively, it is clear that in successful systems data should drive policy and not the other way round. Understanding the ‘delivery chain’ between policy in Whitehall and the facts on the ground was also highly important. An implicit recognition concerns the importance of managing the available information, and we at BBSRC are planning up a number of initiatives that will help overlay a modern information management system onto our numerous sources and stores of data.

Paradigm-changing advances are both uncommon and, by definition, far from the mainstream. One may always therefore wonder whether we maximise our chances, within a system with a fixed science budget and that uses more or less conventional peer review, of fostering them. Thus, I also read Donald Braben’s take on the perceived inadequacies of most scientific funding systems for funding ‘big’ advances, based largely on his experiences of running the BP Venture Research Unit in the 1980s. It is an interesting read, but since it is stated that they screened ~1000 applications per year (and seem to have funded at most 10 of them), it is probably unsurprising that they experienced a fair degree of success. While such strike rates would not prove acceptable in research councils, the numbers of projects they funded are not dissimilar to the numbers of individuals funded as Fellows via BBSRC’s various Fellowship schemes. The implication of the book is that present funding systems conspire against genuinely radical minds (mainly identified post hoc) who create(d) whole new areas of science. However, the criticism that we are thereby losing both our innovative streak and our scientific lead does not sit entirely easily with the facts (including all the BBSRC media releases referred to in the previous blog) and may be premature. In biology, official citation statistics show that among the G8 countries we now lead the world. Note too a recent report in the medical domain that showed that the average time lag between research expenditure and eventual health benefits is around 17 years (and one may note e.g. that the Web – a hugely important invention by Sir Tim Berners-Lee – is barely mentioned by Braben as it has only been around for about this time). Braben does helpfully stress Robert Solow’s findings – rewarded with the 1987 Nobel Prize in economics – that the main engine of economic growth has been technological change, much of which emanates from scientific research. In the case of medicine, investment in research of £1 was found to have returned an extra 35-40p to the economy ‘in perpetuity’. A summary of (similar) figures for the return on investment of basic science in general can be found in Salter and Martin’s review.

Finally, another wonderful read was Neville CardusAutobiography. He was rightly recognised as the doyen of cricket writers (and of music critics) of his age, but he did work hard at his craft. Of his early pieces, he comments “I overwrote, no doubt; but in the beginnings of anything you must take risks and explore your palette entirely. Then, later, with increase of experience and observation, the texture of your writing will strengthen even as it rejects excess and throws off the superfluous adjective.”

Cardus was for a time the assistant cricket professional at Shrewsbury School, the Alma Mater of Charles Darwin, whose bicentenary we shall of course be celebrating this year (his birthday falling on February 12th).

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